JAMES ROBERT BAKER was an American author of sharply satirical, predominantly gay-themed transgressional fiction, born on this date (d: 1977). A native Californian, his work is set almost entirely in Southern California. After graduating from UCLA, he began his career as a screenwriter, but became disillusioned and started writing novels instead. Though he garnered fame for his books Fuel-Injected Dreams and Boy Wonder, after the controversy surrounding publication of his novel, Tim and Pete, he faced increasing difficulty having his work published. According to his life partner, this was a contributing factor in his suicide.
Baker’s lifelong ambition was to write. Upon graduating from UCLA, he spent approximately five years writing Hollywood screenplays in the early 1980s, a process he hated. While financially successful, he was frustrated that his work was not being produced. “I felt like a door-to-door salesman going to all these [story] pitch meetings … [filled with] rabid, hideous morons”.
Turning his attention to novels, his first book, Adrenaline, was published under the pseudonym James Dillinger. A story of two gay fugitive lovers on the run, it presaged the satire and drug fueled violence so prominent in his later books. Here Baker began developing the themes that dominated his following works: anarchy; angry and somewhat paranoid gay men; the dark underside of Los Angeles, juxtaposed with its sunny outward image; the hypocrisy of organized religion; anonymous sex and its implications in the age of AIDS; and homophobia and the oppression of gays in a Republican dominated America. Its plot device of underdog characters forced into flight due to circumstances beyond their control was one Baker explored in all of his subsequent work. The modest success of this novel encouraged him to devote himself to what have become his best known works, Fuel-Injected Dreams (a novel revolving around a character loosely based on record producer Phil Spector) and the 1986 release Boy Wonder. After the novel was published, he stopped screenwriting in order to solely concentrate on books. He spent the bulk of each day writing and researching, and acted out characters and scenes of his novels on videotape to perfect the dialogue.
His primary focus was gay-themed writing, though he also wrote about the entertainment industry. Mostly satirical, his writing was filled with increasingly clear anger and disdain for the Republican neo-con agenda, especially after the AIDS pandemic began to take a large toll on the gay community. A very strong voice in gay literature, Baker had admirers and detractors for his gay radical stance, both in the mainstream literary community as well as the gay community itself.
Baker’s work has achieved cult status in the years since his death, and two additional novels have been posthumously published. First-edition copies of his earlier works have become collector’s items. His novel Testosterone was adapted to a film of the same name, though it was not a financial success. Two other books have been optioned for films, but they have not been produced.
After the reception of Tim and Pete, with several critics calling him “The Last Angry Gay Man”, Baker faced increasing difficulty finding a publisher for his work and his financial position became precarious. He was only able to publish one novella, Right Wing, and that was self-published on the Internet.
Baker’s life partner, Ron Robertson, believes that this difficulty led Baker on a quick, downwards emotional spiral. Baker killed himself at his home in November 1997, by asphyxiation in his garage. His death was noted in literary circles and mainstream press; the Gay Times in the United Kingdom wrote, “Baker’s suicide is particularly tragic because it robs American gay writing of a refreshingly distinctive voice quite unlike the po-faced prose of so many of his contemporaries.”
By 2006, first editions of Adrenaline, Boy Wonder, Fuel-Injected Dreams and Tim and Pete had become collector’s items and commanded high prices at rare book stores.