Nerites is not your typical Roman youth. First of all, he is a demigod (begotten by Neptune upon a mortal Roman matron); secondly, he really enjoys oral sex (despite being a freeborn Roman citizen). Eager to satisfy his appetite for fellatio, he frequents the Baths of Caracalla, and there it is that he meets his own father, who, upon discovering his son acting in such an unmanly fashion (upon Neptune himself, no less—awkward!), curses Nerites to spend eternity upon his knees, forever servicing men in order to survive. Thus begins Nerites’ haphazard journey back and forth through time, appearing and reappearing in these havens for men like him, from the Continental Baths of disco-era Manhattan, to bathhouses in feudal (and also present-day) Japan, and the baths of the Roman Empire.
For a man under a curse, Nerites certainly doesn’t act like it: he never bemoans his fate, nor simply accepts it in a stoic fashion; rather, he unapologetically glories in the endless feast of male flesh, never tiring or being bored by the unending diet of oral copulation. It is not until his dark half-brother Obsidio (his mother’s son by Pluto) begins shadowing him and cold bodies begin appearing in the hot tubs and steam rooms that Nerites pauses his non-stop orgy to deal with this threat.
Tom Cardamone is no stranger to horror, or the erotic, and The Lurid Sea combines both, but not in equal amounts. The majority of this short novel is an erotic memoir by Nerites, from his sexual awakening with his half-brother, to his adolescent explorations, to the many, many, nameless men through the ages that he has sucked off. (In a story that spans the ages, the few recurring characters would naturally be other immortals like Nerites: the satyr Zotikos, a Japanese kitsune, and Obsidio.) Horror arrives near the end, when Nerites must confront Obsidio, after first descending into the realm of Pluto. (Who knew that Hades had a bathhouse? Although I suppose it makes sense that the Land of the Dead would have one, or at least the shadow of one.) Nerites’ clash with Obsidio is the climax of the novel, in more ways than one. Confronting Death also forces Nerites to mature, something that clearly happens on a different timeline for immortals.
Nerites’ complicated relationship with Obsidio weaves throughout the novel, his joyous, life-affirming sexuality contrasting to Obsidio’s brutal carnality and deadly kiss. Only Nerites can withstand the lethal power of Obsidio’s semen (Nerites’ own semen can drive mortals mad—he doesn’t know how it would affect another immortal), so he services Obsidio in part to spare the mortals who would die if they attempted to do so, while recognizing that he truly does so for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than any sense of duty to mere mortals. And apparently it is only the presence of Obsidio that can halt Nerites’ saturnalia, and potentially lift the “curse” he lives under—much as the specter of AIDS halted the bacchanalia that was the 1970s, and closed many bathhouses.
Cardamone’s novel is a pleasurable romp through space and time, and Nerites makes an entertaining guide. Still, hidden among the unending conflict between eros and thantos, Cardamone leaves small pearls of wisdom: keen philosophical insights into history, as well as the nature of lust, love, and desire, not unlike the pearls that Nerites laps up endlessly.
The Lurid Sea
By Tom Cardamone
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781626399112, 180 pp.