Our book today is historian James Davidson’s odd, maddening little travelogue-(um…)cum-memoir One Mykonos, which came out in 1999, hot on the heels of the author’s amazing history of ancient Athenian social life, Courtesans & Fishcakes. The sub-title of One Mykonos is: “Being Ancient, Being Islands, Being Giants, Being Gay,” but one glance at the cover – the main island’s much-photographed main tourist harbor at the bottom, and a long-lashed young man being showered with some kind of jetting liquid at the top – is enough to raise the suspicion that the sub-title could just as easily have been “Being Gay, Being Gay, Being Gay, Being Really, Really Gay.” Which is in part unavoidable: Mykonos in recent years has become a member in good standing of that small but potent designation: the gay mecca (in any given decade, there are usually about fifteen of these in the world – Massachusetts has one, as does, of all places, Maine). Davidson rightly describes it as “your idea of what a Greek island should look like, the one you’ve almost certainly heard of or seen: lots of white white cuboid churches, a labyrinthine street-structure of back passages, flowers and mounting steps, pretty windmills, brilliant sunshine, amazing beaches, the Cyclades at their Cycladicest.”
Running throughout that description (in cheap sandals, and party-colored thongs, tipsy on white wine coolers) is one more key item: boys, boys, boys. Davidson opens the book with a scene of himself dancing at a rooftop party until dawn surrounded by boys just as pretty as he was at the time. Which would be fine, if that’s as far as things went and this were a (heavily-illustrated) blog. But almost immediately, Davidson tries a grafting manuever, shifting from gyrating young bodies to ancient Mycenae and snippets from Ovid and Terence. We get mythological musings mushed in cheek-to-cheek with strobe lights and languid, slippery mornings, and Davidson never seems the slightest bit aware of the fact that the hybridization more often fails than succeeds. Probably what keeps him from seeing this is the bravura flair of his own prose:
Scientists love to find truth in mythic fictions. They have discovered sound scientific reasons for the Flood of Noah in the filling of the Black Sea, for the plagues of Egypt in algal blooms, and in a peculiar combination of winds and tides, a logical explanation for the parting of the Red Sea. Some are clearly fixing things to create the reported effect. Others discover something big and assume it must have left some traces somewhere. It makes historians feel superior to see scientists being so daft, but no one doubts that islands float, like continents, according to the theory of plate tectonics that sees land as a shifting surface structure, the rearrangeable mask of Earth.
This flair has only grown throughout his career (its exuberant explosions in the pages of Davidson’s masterpiece, The Greeks and Greek Love, badly confused virtually all of the starchy academics tasked with reviewing the thing – those reviews are every bit as unintentionally funny as Davidson himself predicted they would be); it never deserts him, and it makes everything he writes a joy to read. But it can’t work miracles. It can’t change poppers and chlamydia into Peleus and Cassandra, no matter how pretentiously Davidson tries to make it do so. Sometimes, a sex-vacation is just a sex-vacation – as is obvious from the frequency with which Davidson’s digressions about Dionysus and Poseidon turn into passages from Ethan Mordden’s “Buddies” series:
Later I meet a poisonous creature from New Jersey who is great fun and suggests I go and have my photograph taken for the commemorative beefcake calendar which is happening behind the flashy motor car. “I’m not beefcake, unfortunately. Do you think I could keep my shirt on?” “Oh God!” he says. “Don’t they have gym in Europe? B – S – E.” He has all the lowdown on all the Americans who have made the trip and tells me the personal history of four or five of them, all the delusions they have about themselves and how they behave with their boyfriends. When one of them approaches the photographer he calls out, “No … No … No … No … No!” at ever increasing volume, until the man hears something against the beat of the music and turns towards him and smiles. His favourite word is class, that is, boys who have it and boys who don’t.
So we’re back to boys. On Mykonos.