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Here’s a rainy-day activity for those sexual adventurers out there: The next time you and your partner decide to navigate the lustier landscapes of love, try writing—post-coitus, please—the dialogue and action of what just went down. Unless the two of you are really, really talented—in more ways than one—the resulting prose will inevitably resemble an overheated blend of Penthouse Forum and a Hallmark card. Sex, it turns out, is fun and easy to have—but not so fun and easy to script. Phony nookie in a so-far engaging novel kills the deal: The reality is shot. The author has let you down. Then again, sex is something that can’t be ignored: We need it. We crave it. We wish we were having it right now. So sex—in the heart, in the head, in the bed—is near impossible for any adult fiction writer to ignore. Unless you’re Tom Clancy, of course.
In The Good Parts: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction, editor J.H. Blair has compiled close to 50 of the hottest, wildest—but, above all, most human—sex scenes from contemporary American literature. The humor, twisted and otherwise, is always intentional. And the 100-watt bare bulb dangling above the mattress is always bright, unabashedly revealing every awkward fondling, shaky-handed caress, and missed target. Unlike in the world of hirsute porn legend Ron Jeremy, the sex here comes with complications: impotence, infidelity, AIDS, even good old exhaustion. In abbreviated bursts of vibrant, no-holds-barred language—more than half of which were written by women—The Good Parts shows us the sex we have, the sex we want to have, and the sex we have with regrets. It’s startling, revealing, and frightening; it’s the wet spot, the tired arms, and the sore legs.
As if alerting the squeamish to what lies in store, Blair opens the 225-page collection with “Kathy Goes to Haiti,” an excerpt from Kathy Acker’s 1978 novel, Literal Madness. The language—and the sex—is considerably harsher than the often poetic couplings that follow. But Acker is detailing the rough-‘n’-tumble play-by-play of an illicit affair, one mired in lust, confusion, youth—and maybe even love:
“Now do you like my beard?” Roger asks.
“I always liked your beard.”
“But now you see why my beard’s so special.”
“Oh shit.” Kathy’s heat’s rising. She’s about to come again. Roger doesn’t want her to come again from his tongue. He rises over Kathy…
Kathy doesn’t exactly know what’s happening. Roger and Kathy fuck and then stop fuck and then stop fuck and then stop. They’re actually fucking slowly and in a steady rhythm….Yet they’re fucking slowly enough that she’s not becoming hysterical. Fucking is not fucking and not fucking is fucking. No one can tell who’s coming or who’s not coming. No one knows and forgets anything.
A few “scenes” later, Blair counters Acker’s frank language detailing young, troubled lovers with a more tender—and much sexier—transaction from Frederick Busch’s 1991 novel, Harry and Catherine, which focuses on a long-married couple and the rediscoveries—sexual and otherwise—the two make as life goes on:
For they had made love, before, with some invention, with an artful delaying, with cruel and delicate stallings, and with all sorts of noise. Now they were silent, and they didn’t laugh any more. She lay on her back beneath him, her legs almost around him and up in the air, the calves and feet flopping as if disconnected, as Harry, with no cunning foreplay, his fingers touching only her arms and her neck, her face, and then at last her back, plunged deep into what, she was interested and grateful to know, was like a liquid core. There was little rearing and watching, no out-to-the-tip-and-slowly-back-in, as there used to be between them. It was, she thought, as if they didn’t choose to separate by even that much space.
But not everyone is getting busy in The Good Parts. In several selections, foreplay is the focus—and sex is nothing more than a shimmering dream of another day. In his story “Lyricism,” Charles D’Ambrosio paints teenagers Joan and Potter in an autumnal pasture, their mutual crush centering on the black ribbon holding up the young woman’s long, dark hair (“Potter held the strip of velvet, rubbing his thumb back and forth, feeling first the smooth way, then the stiff way. Then he leaned forward and saw her close her eyes, so he closed his too. Her kiss was the quietest thing in the world. Potter never wanted to open his eyes again, but he did, after a while, and Joan was looking at his face, and smiling. ‘My sister taught me how in the mirror,’ she said”).
When I was 12, my mother owned a used-books store in Londonderry, N.H. During the summer, for an honest day’s wage of lunchtime Big Macs and afternoon Blizzards, I’d often help Mom shelve the dusty, moldy stock—and subsequently help myself to the Mad paperbacks and Choose Your Own Adventures that would flood the unappreciated young-adult section.
But at least once a day, when Mom would have three or four people in line—usually busybody housewives loading up on Harlequins and Silhouettes—I’d wander over to the more mature fare: Erica Jong, Harold Robbins, Coffee, Tea or Me?. The air seemed to change—thicker, warmer—the second I entered the forbidden zone. The trick, of course, was to find the cheesiest, smuttiest cover—a tan, curvaceous damsel, eyes half-lidded with lust, arms and legs oh-so-strategically crossed—then cradle the paperback gently in my sweaty pubescent palm. Within seconds, the magic would occur: The yellowing pages would split into delicious segments, and the widest divides, more times than not, would be the paperback’s love scenes. Sometimes the prose would be vague—pulses, hillocks, mounds—but sometimes the prose was just right—zippers, thrusts, yelps. I’m sure my mother knew what I was doing, but I was blissfully lost—completely unaware—in this wild new world. What can I say: I’m an only child, and this was making up for the crude education brothers and sisters could have no doubt given me.
Dale Peck’s 1993 novel, Martin and John, follows a young gay couple from flirtation to rabid humping to the arrival of real love (“Martin put his hand back in his lap. His words, when they came, were even. He could have been talking about the weather. You could slip a condom on your cock, he said, and twirl me on it like a globe on its axis”). And Pat Califia’s punk-lesbian fiction is represented by her 1993 short story “What Girls Are Made Of,” a Roger Corman-esque tale of a good woman running with the bad (“The door opened and Killer walked in. ‘Yes, you may,’ Killer said, and jammed her high-heeled shoe between Bo’s legs, pinning her hand and the vibrator in place. Bo came with the sharp heel of the dancer’s shoe against her perineum. ‘Come again,’ Killer said, and jerked on the chain that connected the clamps. She also rocked her heel into Bo’s tender flesh. And Bo came again, in terror and shock”).
In The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon’s popular 1988 novel, a college student is caught between his lust for a man and his love for a woman. Chabon’s debut zooms in on that oh-so-fuzzy line between gay and straight in a painfully honest, heartbreaking style:
I went to her cluttered vanity and scooped out a dollop of cold petroleum jelly, prepared everything Arthur had trained me so well to prepare, but immediately on entering that pinched, plain orifice of so little character, I lost heart, because I simply could not understand what I was about to do; it was neither backward nor forward, or else it was both at the same time, but it was too confusing for me to desire it anymore, and I said, “It’s all a mistake.”
And if you ever ventured into my apartment, and from the stacks of books piled high above my nonworking fireplace pulled the collection I’m reviewing here, you’d be wise to cradle it gently in your palm and let the pages fall open to the very best of the very best: Harold Brodkey’s short story “Innocence” is sex in excruciating real time, spotlighting the sexual fulcrum between a man and a woman very much in love—but considerably out of sync in the sack. Brodkey’s tale is the longest in Blair’s collection, but the pace, set up by the man’s feverish thought process, is breakneck. “Innocence” is near-breathless in detailing a high-stakes, now-or-never action sequence between a man who’s been with many women and a woman who’s been with many wrong men:
The thing was, apparently, that she was arrythmic: at least that’s what I thought; and that meant there weren’t going to be regular contractions, any rhythm for me to follow; and any rhythm I set up as I fucked, she broke with her movements: so that it was that when she moved, she made her excitement go away: it would be best if she moved very smally: but I was afraid to tell her that, or even to try to hold her hips firmly, and guide them, to instruct her in that way for fear she’d get self-conscious and lose what momentum she’d won. And also I was ashamed that I’d stopped going down on her.
But later, after more mind games, more frustrations, more sweat, the couple—finally—celebrates a near-religious epiphany:
[a]nd then all at once, it happened. Something pulled her over; and something gave in; and all three pairs of wings began to beat: she was the center and the source and the victim of a storm of wing beats; we were at the top of the world; the huge bird of God’s body in us hovered; the great miracle pounded on her back, pounded around us; she was straining and agonized and distraught, estranged within this corporeal-incorporeal thing, this angelic other avatar, this other substance of herself: the wings were outspread; they thundered and gaspily galloped with her; they half broke her; and she screamed, “Wiley!” and “Mygodmygod” and “IT’S NOT STOPPING, WILEY! IT’S NOT STOPPING!” She was pale and red; her hair was everywhere; her body was wet, and thrashing.
I imagine the writing in Blair’s collection is something to be savored over time: some of the finest modern-fiction practitioners of our time writing about our chief fascination. All the rich, buttery language; all the between-the-lines breathiness. I, on the other hand, consumed the collection in a little under three hours. But this gluttony certainly wouldn’t bother Blair. After all, we can always revisit the good parts. CP