Oliver Park, a recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they've made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn't be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it's a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it's the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life. He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.
I often thought about our sex rules as I read P. J. Vernon’s second novel, Bath Haus, a smart, steamy thriller laced with heady questions about control and shame. As the pages flew by, my mind drifted from the tribulations of its protagonist, Oliver Park, to the cultures in which such stories ferment.
What makes Bath Haus so engaging is that Vernon gives Oliver many layers. He’s not superficial or hedonistic or merely foolish. You can’t write him off. Trauma clouds his past ... Vernon knows how to grab you from the first line and not let go; he also knows that plot means nothing without a character we can root for, even when he’s making terrifyingly dangerous choices ... As you read, the pages fly by—the writing is very good ... more...than sheer entertainment.
Vernon does an excellent of job conveying Haus’ cheap lavender humidity ... The initial chapters of Bath Haus signal that it’s going to be hard to root for many of these people. Flashbacks throughout the novel fill in Oliver’s troubled youth in Tyre, Ind., and although the litany of hard knocks helps to humanize him, it feels somewhat formulaic ... the tension builds to unbearably claustrophobic levels ... To say more would rob readers of the 'no, he didn't suspense that makes Bath Haus an unexpectedly twisted, heart-pounding cat-versus-mouse thriller. But as the novel’s central characters, friends and family ducked and dodged their messy truths, I couldn’t help but feel that what had really gone missing, repeatedly, were ample opportunities to deepen the story ... A subplot involving Nathan’s distress over a looming eviction in a neighborhood where he could easily buy another house begs for a writer like Highsmith, who had a knack for skewering the insecurities and rot of the petty bourgeoisie, while the implausible ease with which characters gain access to Schedule II narcotics seemed to skirt meatier issues of America’s prescription drug crisis. A glimpse into the life of Nathan’s best friend takes as a given the intersection of conservative politics with gay culture, which in the hands of more developed protagonists, such as Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter or Nava’s Henry Rios, could have been fodder for meaningful ironies ... But at the risk of sounding hopelessly old-school, most bothersome for me is why so many of these characters, most of them gay, are so relentlessly broken. The tropes Vernon serves up — the sugar baby, insecure older man, bitchy best friend — drown out their deeper humanity in service of the plot’s escalating peek-behind-the-curtain thrills. This shortcoming is most evident in the novel’s carefully engineered denouement, which veers between heart-in-your-mouth suspense and an unintended campiness that undercuts the gravity of the moment ... I’m delighted that Vernon has been able to publish widely a crime novel bearing his unique voice and style, to bring formerly stigmatized themes and corners of gay culture out of the shadows. How can I not be, when so much unsatisfactory straight fiction clogs the shelves already? But if Vernon had actually challenged the stereotypes he was working with and plumbed for truths beneath the easy clichés about gay culture, Bath Haus could have had an impact beyond its sensational details. Vernon’s characters, and readers, deserve better.