Friday, March 19, 2004

The Voice of Experience: Painfully Obvious by Robert Davolt

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #230, March 19, 2004)

In leather and in life, Robert Davolt has been there and done that. And he has the scars to show for it. He has been sharing his experience and hard-won wisdom with leather readers since his days as Drummer Magazine’s final editor. Since the demise of Drummer Davolt has been a columnist on <>; his new book, Painfully Obvious (Daedalus Publishing Company, $16.95, <>), is a collection of material that originally appeared there.

Davolt has been called—well, I’m sure he’s been called a lot of things over the years, considering the toes he’s stepped on. Among the things he has been called are “the Mark Twain of the leather community” and “Andy Rooney on poppers.” Davolt’s writing can be acerbic, ironic, sarcastic—but certainly never dull. He pulls no punches and gores many pieces of sacred cowhide. Since has no advertisers to offend, Davolt is free to speak his mind. And he does.

Davolt was born to a conservative family from which he ran away at age 17 when he joined the Navy. By that tender age he already had experience as both businessman and journalist. He continued practicing journalism (and even teaching it) throughout the 1980s.

In 1996 he took over the editorial reins at Drummer and in 1999 had the sad honor of closing the magazine down. (The story of Drummer’s end is his next book.) As Drummer editor he also was responsible for the International Mr. Drummer and International Drummerboy contests and titles.

Davolt starts Painfully Obvious with “The Metaphor of Leather,” a philosophical piece written in the aftermath of the Drummer meltdown. It says what many leather community members have thought at one time or another but few have dared voice. This piece is a good, if extreme, introduction to Davolt’s style and tone throughout the book—he starts it with a bitter, angry cry of pain but manages to end on a (slightly) hopeful and (cautiously) optimistic note. After this introductory piece the book is divided into several sections of related columns.

The first section very practically and pragmatically explores such topics as how to navigate a leather bar; what to wear and where to get it; and, once you get it, how to get it through airport security. The subtitle of this book is “An Irreverent & Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM,” and if ever there was a user’s manual or member’s guide to leather, this is it.

I was especially impressed with Davolt’s investigative-journalism chops in the airport-security piece—he effectively highlights the many reasons why I now take trains whenever possible.

Also in this section is Davolt’s step-by-step, dollar-by-dollar guide to the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest. If Consumer Reports wrote about IML, it would be this—minus Davolt’s characteristic flair.

Davolt moves from the pragmatic to the thought-provoking in the book’s second section on leather relationships. After examining the many possible names and forms for leather relationships he skillfully yet lovingly deconstructs the notion of the (dysfunctional) leather family (“In Leather We Are Family . . . Then Again, So Were The Borgias.”)

The book’s third section deals with aspects of leather history and community: advice to leather journalists, how to patronize a bootblack without making a fool of yourself, leather clubs and leather businesses. There are also a few reminiscences about his time at Drummer that made me wish he’d hurry up with his next book.

Also in the third section is one of the best things I have ever read on the subject of multiculturalism in the leather community—or in any community, for that matter. Davolt draws upon the work of author Mark Williams and his new book 10 Lenses: Your Guide to Living and Working in a Multicultural World (Capital Books), and then particularizes those “ten lenses” to the leather community. As with so many things in this book and in the leather community, these concepts work equally well if you apply them to the rest of society.

The fourth section of the book deals with leadership. In it Davolt presents advice for leather community leaders, event planners, and people involved in all aspects of leather contests: contestants, contestant sponsors, titleholders, emcees, judges, producers and title owners. Davolt has been in all those roles at one time or another, so he knows whereof he speaks.

At this point I must disclose that I am not a totally unbiased reviewer for this book, since I was asked by the author to write the book’s introduction. In order to be able to write a proper introduction, of course, I had to read a draft of the book. As it turned out I not only read it, I also did a fair amount of copy editing.

At that time I was struck by how many of the pieces in the book merited my personal “Gee, I wish I’d written that” award. Now that I’ve read the final, printed version of the book I am struck again by his intelligence, intellect, insight and wisdom.

And this leads me to my one disappointment in the book: I regret to report that the production of the book is not quite up to snuff—in matters of design, layout, typography and proofreading, it falls short. I am somewhat surprised at this considering Davolt’s background in journalism and magazine publishing. And I find it especially distressing since I corrected many gremlins when I read the draft, but now that the book is in print I find some of those gremlins have crept back in and new ones have been introduced.

Davolt and his writing deserve better. The content of the book is so good and so worthwhile—I just wish the form served it better. Still, Painfully Obvious is a great contribution to leather literature. I will end this review the same way I ended the book’s introduction: You’ll find a lot of leather wisdom (and just plain wisdom, too) in these pages.

Be glad Davolt is willing to share.

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