P. J. Vernon has perhaps done the previously unthinkable: set himself apart from the usual mold of gay fiction with his sophomore novel, Bath Haus. Unlike more recent efforts in the gay male genre, namely Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s Yes, Daddy, inexplicably praised with generic words like “propulsive” and “ambitious” (sort of a polite way of saying that the ambition was not achieved), Bath Haus turns expectation on its ear through a thriller lens. While Yes, Daddy theoretically provides the same elements of a thriller via the emphasis on an “exploration of class, power dynamics and the nuances of victimhood and complicity,” Bath Haus does this with far more deftness and much less soap opera-inspired theatrics.
Like Yes, Daddy’s main character, Jonah Keller, Oliver Park is also under the thumb of his older, more established partner. Otherwise known as: a sugar daddy. Unlike Jonah, however, Oliver’s older gay gentleman is not—ostensibly—manipulating him and controlling him with money for the sole purpose of turning him into a Hamptons sex slave. No, instead, Nathan Klein, an established trauma surgeon from a moneyed family, seems to want “nothing but the best” for his “husband.” A term his mother, Kathy, is certain to remind her son doesn’t actually hold any legal weight as they’ve only ever been, at best, “domestic partners” for the past five years. Yet a partnership implies equitability. With Oliver’s finances being what they are (or, more specifically, what they aren’t), that’s pretty much impossible—giving Nathan all the real power in the relationship.
While Nathan gives off the illusion that this isn’t even on his radar, it’s evident he’s the sort of man who gets off on the power play. The ability to control and exploit under the guise of being “good” and “helpful.” As we come to find out, this aspect of his personality has quite a bit to do with why he homes in on Oliver at a hospital cafeteria in Indiana where Nathan “happens to be” every day during Oliver’s post-recovery phase (the two then move to D.C. together, into the Klein family’s deluxe Georgetown residence).
With Vernon having gone the “straight route” with his debut, When You Find Me, there are certain similarities in terms of the paranoia and anxiety that comes from receiving messages from a threatening and ominous source (sort of like what Kristen Stewart was going through in Personal Shopper). Bath Haus funnels that into messages received through “MeetLockr,” where Oliver has been guiltily trolling for new dick as he grows bored with “steady,” “dependable” Nathan after five years. Knowing full well that Nathan is like a literal Daddy in terms of monitoring his every move, Oliver makes the risky assumption that by wiping his phone and internet searches of all “nefarious” traces, he’ll be able to keep any of Nathan’s suspicions at bay.
Unfortunately, that fear becomes the least of his worries as he finds himself involved with an extremely shady character who could destroy his gilded life just as it scarcely began. Like Jonah in Yes, Daddy, Oliver has the realization that there’s no “other option” for him. Nathan is it. Good or bad, he has to cling to this meal ticket (who he tells himself he also happens to love) at all costs. Even if that means endangering his life and the lives of others by not simply confessing his small indiscretion to Nathan after being choked out at a bathhouse called, that’s right, Haus (now you understand the book title). It’s here that Oliver goes down a lavender-scented rabbit hole where he meets a murderous Cheshire cat of a man named Kristian (indeed, an Alice in Wonderland reference is made when Oliver notes, “I’m suddenly a bit like Alice. I’ve just met the Cheshire Cat, and Jefferson Airplane plays over which pills do what in my head”). Handsome, Scandinavian and way more into erotic asphyxiation than Oliver bargained for, Kristian is the ultimate devil in disguise.
And since being choked—suffocated—is such a central theme of the novel, Bath Haus opens with the definition of asphyxia, a clinical condition divided into the same five stages that mete out the story into five different acts—starting with “Surprise Respiration: When danger is recognized, a deep and forceful inhalation occurs.” That’s certainly what happens to Oliver in Haus, proving that any attempt at pleasure-seeking can only backfire with a tenfold amount of pain. Undeniably, there’s something Fatal Attraction-esque about the whole thing. A man just wants to have a casual dalliance and suddenly he’s paying for it with his life. It feels like the cautionary tale that gay monogamy has been missing. Luckily, like everything else, this book has been optioned for its film rights as well (and there’s just something so much more “class” about that than a TV show).
By Part II, “Dyspnea: Breath is held involuntarily, blood pressure spikes and pupils dilate,” Oliver comprehends that he’s not dealing with a garden variety psychopath—Kristian is even more methodical than that. With a surgeon-like precision he might have only previously attributed to Nathan. Nathan, who, like all narcissists, banks on feeding from Oliver’s worship. Thus, to find out that Oliver is losing interest in him is a major blow to his surgeon’s ego. For yes, narcissism is a disease found quite often in the surgeon’s mind, with his need to orchestrate absolutely every maneuver for the sole sake of getting his laudatory praise at the end. Nathan additionally counts on using all of Oliver’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities against him when it suits Nathan’s purpose—eventually throwing it back in his face that he was so low as a person—an addict—that he stole his dying mother’s pain meds right in front of her. Proving, once again, that you should never open yourself up fully to anyone, as they’ll always have a chance to stab you in the back with personal information you thought you could trust them with. But in any heated argument, that “sharing” can easily come back to bite you in the ass.
As we embark on Part III, “Unconsciousness: Respiratory arrest. Awareness of self and environment ceases,” we’re less annoyed with Oliver for not confessing the truth to both the police and Nathan, because we understand that his life before this was one of an entirely worse kind of desperation. Or so he thinks… Which just goes to show that the old adage about replacing one obsession (a.k.a. addiction) with another is all that’s really happening when we make the decision to quit something. But these new obsessions can be deemed healthier than the old ones—and that’s how Oliver views Nathan. Even if Nathan’s overly reciprocal obsession with Oliver isn’t healthy at all.
After filing two police reports—one true (the rehashing of what happened at Haus) and one false (a story about being mugged while running)—because Nathan makes him go in to do it a second time without being aware of the first one, Oliver has put himself at even further risk should the case go to trial. Seeing that the law will likely be of no use to him, he tries to correct the situation himself after Kristian breaks into their Georgetown palace under the pretense of being a member of their contractor’s coterie of workers. Skeeved out beyond belief, Oliver just knows that Kristian is also the one who ends up breaking in later, whereupon Nathan’s dog “goes missing.”
So it is that he decides to render himself as bait at a posh hotel called The Jefferson, where we segue into Part IV, “Hypoxic Convulsion: Frothing of the mouth. Blueing skin and nails. Violent muscle contractions.” This is where Oliver has his second violent interaction with Kristian after luring him there in an attempt to get Nathan’s cocker spaniel, Tilly, back. Tilly, who Oliver assumes was stolen by him in the first place, only to learn too late that Tilly has been found by a neighbor.
As Oliver gets increasingly out of his depth, we see more small chapters coming in from Nathan’s perspective, where the glimmers of his villainous personality start to shine through. As the novel draws to a close, Oliver is presented with the chilling revelation that Kristian has been texting him through MeetLockr despite Detective Henning informing him he was found dead. With this newfound intel, we go into Part V, “Terminal Respiration: Cardiac arrest. Clinical death.” This definition goes back to the question Nathan asks at the beginning of the book, “When do you call time of death on a marriage?” Well, probably around the time you orchestrate an elaborate and highly dangerous trap designed to prove your “husband’s” unwavering loyalty to you. Which just goes to just show, as Yes, Daddy did, that rich people have way too much fucking time and resources on their hands. But not in the way that—like struggling, destitute artists just trying to find any spare moment to pursue what they truly want—makes them seek out productive means to “pass” said time. Rather, in the way that makes them have too many spare minutes to think about how they can fuck with the “less fortunate.”
And oh, how older gay sugar daddies love to do just that when it comes to exerting power over a much younger, poverty-stricken man. With Bath Haus, Vernon confirms as much in a slightly less cartoonish manner than Parks-Ramage. And while, sure, straight sugar daddies can be dastardly as well, the difference seems to be that the women in the permutation end up being the ones accused of villainy for their gold digging (see: Anna Nicole Smith). Read into this the misogyny that there blatantly is. In contrast, with a gay male couple consisting of sugar daddy and sugar baby, the playing field becomes level in one key differentiating fashion, and one key differentiating fashion only: gender.