The toned body of John Rottam pirouettes through Andrew Binks’s second novel. The young dancer traverses the country, migrating from ballet to burlesque, while navigating gay romantic life at the advent of the AIDS crisis. Propelled by youthful energy and set primarily in 1980s Quebec, Strip reads like a boy version of Zoe Whittall’s queer classic Bottle Rocket Hearts.
Originally from an uptight WASP family in Edmonton, Rottam arrives in cosmopolitan Montreal on tour with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. There, he experiences first love. An unceremonious breakup sends Rottam to Quebec City to lick his wounds, and he turns to stripping to pay the bills. A new romance eventually leads him to Toronto, where multiple calamities conspire to knock him off his feet once more.
The world of ballet – both its technical complexities and cutthroat competitiveness – is ably articulated by Binks, who spent seven years as a dancer himself. In Rottam’s story, the author captures an experience very common to gay men of that time – a search for acceptance and self-actualization that invariably meant distancing oneself from one’s origins. Throughout, Rottam confronts a persistent sense of otherness: as a queer in a straight world and an Anglo in Quebec.
Despite a prominent mention on the novel’s first page, the impact of AIDS is underdeveloped. The first-person narration is characterized by interiority, but when an emotional and sexual intimate of Rottam’s dies with spectacular suddenness, the reader is left with little reflection upon the protagonist’s own mortality. Binks’s plot meanders, hampered by distracting dream sequences and credulity-straining coincidences.
Strip involves Rottam looking back upon events at a moment of crisis, the nature of which is hinted at throughout. But the eventual reveal, while dramatic and well handled, fails to offer sufficient payoff.
While Strip suffers some structural flaws, it is nevertheless a funny, potent, and thematically sophisticated coming-of-age story.