About The Substance of God—
Substance of God was named a Lambda Literary Award finalist for
What happens when Dr. Leonard Miller, a gay bio-researcher—who is
addicted to "kinky" sex—is found mysteriously murdered in his
after working on a living human tissue close to two thousand years old?
And what happens when this constantly regenerating substance brings
himself back to life?
Len Miller must ask himself these questions, as well as who infiltrated
his lab to kill him, how long will he have to live again—and, exactly,
where does life end and a Hereafter, which so many people long for,
Miller's story takes him from the underground sex scenes of New York to
the steamy all-male baths of Istanbul. It will deal with the longing
God in a techno-driven world. With the deep, persistent attractions of
religious fundamentalism. And with the fundamentals of "outsider"
as both spiritual ritual and cosmic release. And Miller, the
hard-core scientist, will be driven himself to ask one more question:
our often-censored urge towards sex and our great, undeniable urge
a union with God . . . the same urge?
Once again Perry Brass has shown himself to be an original thinker
work fuses action, spirituality, politics, and eroticism to explore
of the major questions of our time.
An Excerpt from Perry Brass's recent
The Substance of God, A
I came back squirming, wide-awake, alone. Completely
naked, all twitching muscles and shooting nerves, my eyes filled with
grit. I kicked my way out of the black covering I’d been left in, as my
body pulled itself up into the dark cold air from a cold metal table.
Every joint in me cracked.
My stomach sucked in a
shocking gasp of cold air. I sat up as straight as I could, looking at
the white tag dangling from my right big toe. Pulling up my knee, I
bent towards it, my fingers stiffly struggling to remove the narrow
card. My toe had swollen around it, but I managed to loosen it,
bringing it up to my nose. Eyes barely focusing, in the dim light I
read who I was.
rattled through my dry mouth.
Springing off the
table, I hit the tile floor on the balls of my feet, reborn. Then a
pain sliced through me, shooting straight up my legs to my head and I
crumpled to the floor, holding on to my skull and weeping from the
agony of it. Better to be dead.
The pain ebbed away,
and I was just alive. Beautifully.
I got up, weightless,
with that pure lovely lightness you think will happen after death. The
room was dark and still with no windows. Suddenly a light so real that
it flooded my eyes seemed to pour in all around me, pushing back the
rush of fear I’d felt with that burst of pain.
I felt normal in the
most transcendent, truthful way.
And I was, if I’d read
the tag right, Leonard Jason Miller.
It was like meeting an
old friend, someone you’d recognize in a crowded bar. He’s over here. At least I was no
longer alone. I now had an identity to claim for myself.
I rubbed the residue of
dried grit from my eyes. How had this happened to me? How was an
atheistic, Jewish scientist-cocksucker, once dead, now bouncing off a
steel table in the dark? There was no time to breathe in my light. I
had been marooned in death. But now I had rescued my identity myself,
or that self had been saved for me. Creaky after being in one position
for so long, I felt a wave of jubilant energy hit me.
I wanted to dance. Do a
little turn. Experience myself unwinding from the corpse I had been,
some of that tense twitching finally relaxed. With my arched feet and
toes on the cold floor, I performed a few motions, a glowing white
fleshy jiggle, penis flopping side to side, the love handles that
stayed on me no matter what doing a little bump, grind, and shimmy. In
the dark, my hands glided over smooth slabs, formica counters, an
extended metal sink, cabinet drawers, then the blurred profiles of a
few stiffs laid out under sheets. I wasn’t even afraid; they only
seemed like more furniture.
I almost broke down
giggling. Even after my killing pain, I was alive—ecstatic—I was going
to be Leonard Miller once more! I knew it! That was his—my—name! As I performed my little
impromptu gestures of redemption, my elbow knocked over a small glass
beaker from the edge of some counter. It crashed to the floor.
I jumped out of my skin.
Breathing through my
mouth to keep from throwing up, I took slow breaths. The terrifying
crash of that glass lacerated me, like a child trapped against his
will, forced back into the corner of his worst punishment. I tried to
hold on to myself. I had to keep from falling apart—I had to do
I would replace myself.
None of the corpses
left out on the slabs would do. Somebody would miss them. Finally I was
able to read the label “UNCLAIMED” on one of the body drawers, and
pulled it out all the way.
Inside was a shrunken
old man, bony and toothless. He looked like a plucked chicken on ice,
with a wrinkled sagging belly attached. I was saving him from Potter’s
Field, I thought, popping off the tag attached to his rubbery big toe.
I put my own tag on it. Then with a grunt, I hoisted him up out of his
drawer onto my back. Even with my new surge of energy, it was an effort.
Breathing hard and
almost falling over, I managed to haul him to the table where I’d
awakened. I struggled to unzip my bag all the way, still holding on to
the guy, who kept shifting about awkwardly like a big sack of beans.
Both elbows squeezing
down on his cold, ribby chest, I managed to clamp him onto the table
while I disengaged the metal zipper, then stuffed him back into my bag.
In a flash I’d zipped it all the way back up.
I was almost out of
breath. My heart was pumping furiously. Even naked I was ready to make
a run for it, when I heard footsteps approaching from outside.
A flashlight beam
caught me through a narrow window in the door. I scrambled from it like
a startled rat. Towards the back of the room, I spotted another rolling
table with a white sheet tossed over it. Grabbing the hem, I stretched
it down almost to the floor and crawled under it, scrunching my stomach
and hips against the cold tiles.
My head began to throb
again. I lowered it. The cold tiles felt good against my cheek. My
heart pounded as the door clicked open and a flashlight’s beam drew a
trail of rippling light over the pale front of the sheet. For a moment,
all I could do was listen to the pounding inside my body, echoing in my
ear against the tiles.
As the beam left the
outside of the sheet, I raised the side of my head just enough to make
out the click of footsteps in the front of the dark room.
“Seymour! Ain’t nobody
‘live in here. I don’t care what you heard!”
“Yes, ma’am. But I
heard somethin’. I don’t know what, but I heard it.”
A light switch snapped
on. Extremely bright overhead lights bounced off the white tiles, the
glare assaulting my eyes even through the sheet. The woman’s heels
moved in quickly towards me.
“Seymour! See anything
special in here?” Her click-click got more impatient.
“Seymour! You take one
more drink on your shift and it’s gonna be all over with for you. You
can switch places with some of these poor folks here. Understand?”
I watched her shoes
walk away from me.
“Yes, ma’am. But I tell
you, I heard somethin’ funny.”
“Yeah, and you been
seein’ pink, too.” Her heels paused. “Honey, this is the kind of place
where we all hear strange things. We all get rattled sometimes. But
they ain’t nothin’ in here.”
Click-click-click in a
“Wait a minute.
“Look at this mess! Did
you see this? Somebody’s broke a glass and they’re gonna just leave it
for the next shift!”
Footsteps halted; lights
“I got a lotta
paperwork to do, Seymour. Don’t mention that broken glass to nobody.
‘Else I gotta write it up.”
The door closed. I
waited in the dark under the sheet as their voices and footsteps
disappeared into oblivion.
Oblivion was a
destination I knew: footsteps. Voices. A hellstorm of glass. . . .
waiting for me in the recent past: Me, alone at night, in a small
brightly lit corner of my lab. The delicate, near-perfect silence of
state-of-the-art equipment, expensive gauges and pumps measuring and
moving micro-quantities of materials. Hushed tick-tick of the large
black clock on the wall, above orderly rows of desks and tables.
I saw myself examining
a small fragment of ancient human tissue sent to me in secret by an old
For weeks I had been
trying to pierce its well-guarded mystery, my face glued to digital
microscopes and slides; my brain already over-steeped from the volumes
of files I had prepared from it. I had been dazzled by the gradual
unfolding of its DNA, the seductive fan dance of its genetics, which
suggested that even to the most untutored mind, this tissue might be,
by any definition, as alive as I was.
The cells in it were
still living, and I still had no idea how.
It hypnotized me: this
bit of human flesh that had remained alive, centuries and centuries
past the extermination of others. My brain took on its secrets, its
ability to regenerate itself beyond any borders of time that we knew. I
was intoxicated with it, gorging on my own expanding knowledge like a
ravenous bee in a bed of the rarest pollen, an activity that is to
scientists intellectually provocative on one hand, and shamelessly
close to sexual on the other.
Very late that night, I
was close to becoming unraveled myself by my own exhaustion, so I
ignored a muffled stirring from beyond the door, the steady advance of
a distant storm.
I shrugged and let it
go as the sound moved quickly, past the reception area and the once
tomb-quiet hallway. Then the click outside the lab of the main light
The big clock stopped.
I got up in the dark,
by reflex palming the tissue, quickly jamming it inside the high black
elastic top of my right sock. A swarm of men in dark ski masks
“What do you want? What
They grabbed me and hit
me with something hard, over and over again on my neck, head, and body.
“Wha-? Wha-? Wha-?” I
tried to say.
Hands choked the scream
out of me.
I was flailing as they
fanned out to cover the place, shattering glass, hurling logbooks,
equipment, files and documents to the floor. There were four, five,
maybe six of them; they took turns punching and striking me. Obviously
they had known when I’d be alone, when the tissue I carefully guarded
would be out.
Someone with I.D. must
have let them in, past the guard twelve flights down, who was
contracted from the outside and basically unreliable. He would not be
doing another round for at least an hour, unless they had cornered him
and tied him up. Under one of those masks was a Trojan horse in my own
lab, who was evidently prepared to kill me.
Playing dead, I hit the
floor, squeezing my eyes shut. As racks of test tubes and glass petri
dishes crashed down on me, their cultures exposed like oysters pried
from their shells, the thugs grabbed my head, banging it again against
the floor until I passed out. Somehow I came to again, rolling on to my
stomach. Blood from inside me surged up into my throat.
The beating stopped.
Still I couldn’t open my eyes, like they’d been nailed shut. The
darkness was like a wintry polar midnight, squeezed dry of all light.
Next, a kind of pale hazy glow dropped towards me and I felt a
comforting silence blanket me, as off in the distance I heard the chaos
of destruction continue. Through the haze, figures appeared: Mom and
Dad, dead, their index fingers on their lips, as if they were warning
me to stay quiet at a movie.
Don’t get up, Lenny. We’ll take you out ourselves. We have all sorts of
things for you at home. Your little black-and-white TV set. Your
favorite macaroni-and-cheese dinner from the box, with the toasted
crumbs on top. That new Schwinn bike with the white fringe on the
handlebars that you always wanted. We got it for you. Come on, it’s
going to be yours.
They both took me by
the hand, leading me towards home and my new bike, until an iron rod
cracked the back of my skull like an eggshell, and my life stopped.
I saw Jesus.
He seemed endless, like the
sky, and shirtless. I drifted right up to his face, to his lips. He was
smiling at me, his skin all beams of white light waving towards me. He
told me something without words, but I was right there, floating
towards him as if gravity itself were pulling me to him and the message
was streaming directly from his lovely head and into mine.
This will be easy. Easier than we had thought.
Or was that me at
twenty with long hair when I thought I knew everything? He was so
beautiful. Never had I seen anyone so beautiful. (Could this be me? I
was enchanting. . . .)
Don’t worry. You’ve been lucky.
I contracted. Became
small, heavy, no longer floating. Sinking down towards the bottom,
suddenly I couldn’t reach up to him, but sank into a bog of blood.
Lucky? I’d been murdered and was sinking through the catacombs of my
own death, lined with tormenting fear, hard, real, tightening. The
lights, those little glowing flickers at the far physical edges of me
where Mom and Dad had offered their hands, went out. I stopped sinking.
The fear stopped,
replaced by something else.
Gratitude for the end.
It was over.
I crawled out from
under the sheet. The people who had killed me would do it again. There
was no telling where they came from and how many they were. I would be
followed. This was no intuition: I knew it. My own self was speaking to
me: I couldn’t just come back to life—presto!
Somewhere out there were my murderers, and they wouldn’t let their work
go undone. Once you’ve been killed as violently as I had been, you can
never really escape.
I’d been given a
reprieve, but there was no way of telling how long it would last, or
what I was now.
How alive was I? Was I
really Leonard Miller? Or had that tiny bit of tissue created something
My head began to hurt
again. Funny idea: Me, my own clone! I chuckled. If fate’s distant bell
were calling me forth from death, there was no telling how much time I
had in front of me, before the same bell rang again.
I did not want to hear
The Substance of God, A
cover photo by Jack Slomovitz
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