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and Rufus Griscom

Early last year, young lovers Genevieve Field and Rufus Griscom quit their editor jobs to start Nerve.com, a Web ‘zine all about sex. They asked 60 of their favorite writers to write about It, and then some more; the fiction and nonfiction poured in. Nerve.com’s June 1997 launch caught the memoir wave, and the mainstream press heralded the cute blond couple with the dirty Web site. In the introduction to the best-of paperback, Nerve: Literate Smut, Field and Griscom explain their mission to move beyond the “preexisting porn-erotica-self-help continuum….We don’t want to fix sex, we want to examine it. We don’t want to achieve perfect sex, we want to savor imperfect sex.”

It was a plum assignment, for the attraction to the intractable lies at the heart of good writing. Though writers have been grinding away at it for thousands of years, no version of sex has ever spoken for most people—women being the group most notably underrepresented. Unlike death, work, society, family, and the other biggies that touch all our lives, sex is hardly ever depicted in all its complexity. The glut of “adult material” in print, film, video, and the boundless peephole of the Web should be clearing things up, but the opposite is true. This year’s Keystone Cops impeachment proceedings prove that sex, even with its secrets splayed in public, baffles us now as much as ever.

The challenge for contributors was to write across splits like intellect-instinct, emotion-physicality, mystery-knowledge. That last pair is particularly hard to reconcile, and most of the writers in Nerve have chosen specificity over the Vaseline-smeared lens of metaphor. Some of the best pieces are straightforward reporting from the fringes, fixes for the information jones that drives so much Web surfing. Aaron James in “Hustler’s Measure” and Lars Eighner in his accounts of homeless homosex both walk the reader onto those wild sides with apt comparisons and a sure touch. James explains why he joined an escort agency:

A relationship that develops in a bar and subsequently on the taxi ride to the john’s home is often loaded with the suggestion of a developing friendship—thus the ugly feelings, at least in my mind, when the little amitié comes to its abrupt, commercial termination. The mediation of an agency gives a more businesslike dynamic to the whole transaction and, as in psychotherapy, both parties benefit from the structured time and the payment of a set fee.

Novelist Rick Moody introduces an old favorite of his, “Mr. M’s Story,” by Michel de M’Uzan, taken from the “Polysexuality” issue of pomo mag Semiotext(e). In the 1981 piece, de M’uzan, a doctor, examines the flayed, tattooed, tortured, maimed body of this extreme masochist (perhaps a topic for a new ESPN3 network?):

His navel was a sort of crater: molten lead had been poured into it…Thongs of flesh had been cut along his back, through which hooks were passed so that Mr. M. could be suspended while a man penetrated him….Daily ingestion of urine and excrement over a period of time did not cause any apparent upset….

And so on ad pretty fucking nauseam. Yet Moody’s introduction to this fascinating slow pan convinces that charges of “sensationalism” generally conceal a desire to ignore that which one would prefer did not exist. Moody declares that knowledge is a turn-on: “The intellectual revelation is closely related to the orgasm.”

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Nothing brings knowledge, particularly of sex, like experience, and the work here by John Hawkes, Robert Olen Butler, and other older writers is more layered, complex, sad, and profound than the whippersnappers’ stuff. On the other hand, the writers who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s find more to laugh about. Ben Neihart’s “The #1 Song in the Country” is told by a “sexy rage-filled singer-songwriter chick” who needs to rustle up some depravity when the record company demands a new single where “‘I talk about my pussy or maybe pee in a guy’s lap.’” “Michael Stripe” sets her up with a hustler who’s a fan, and, as she urinates down his chest, they brainstorm about song titles: “‘How about ‘Jasmine Wine?’” he asked. I gulped. ‘That’s so damn Steelie Nicks. I love it.’”

Poppy Z. Brite also tweaks rock-‘n’-roll dreaming in “Would You,” which imagines a world where Lennon and McCartney were lovers. “I can’t help thinking that John—with his macho-obnoxious public façade and his private hunger for not just closeness, but immersion—was a secret bottom.” Brite’s fantasy is mostly musical: “[I]n my universe there is no Wings, yet some of the Wings songs that are almost sorta kinda good in this universe now have the dirty Lennon touch and are fucking great.”

Equally hilarious, often unintentionally, is Norman Mailer’s contribution, an 18-year-old interview from Puritan magazine. This surprisingly warm piece (the book’s longest by far) makes me wish Camille Paglia hadn’t taken over as national town crier of crackpot sexual politics. Paglia is Mailer’s equal for funny, ballsy, and self-obsessed, but his macho bluster is more thought-provoking and more humane than her machine-gun spray at all things feminist. In the interview, Mailer explains earnestly that anal sex will make women stray, gay men’s sex is more male-female than heterosexual sex, and masturbation will lead to insanity.

Self-love gets a better rap elsewhere: Quentin Crisp asks in his charming “The Art of Celibacy”: “If you do not enjoy having sex with yourself, why fly to the opposite extreme? Why get married?” Former Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders (with the Rev. Dr. Barbara Kilgore) offers an eloquent paean to the practice, slyly thanking the boss who fired her for putting it in the news. She concludes that masturbation “cultivates in us a humble elegance—an awareness that we are part of a larger natural system, the passions and rhythms of which live on in us.” And Al Goldstein, founder of Screw magazine, confesses/boasts about having beaten off all the time, wondering if he was sick, until his Uncle George got him a hooker who told 16-year-old Al that it was all good.

Each generation to come of age since the ’60s carries less guilt about getting it on. Indeed for many of today’s sluts ‘n’ studs, emotional need is more humiliating than promiscuity, and Elissa Wald details skillfully the parceling out of affection in a “casual” affair. The babelicious sexpert of Wald’s “Holding Fire”

also liked to cook, would have cooked elaborately had it not cost so much leverage. As it was, she often painstakingly put something together and then took equal pains to mask its virginity—she would cut it into pieces, stash it in the fridge, say it was leftover from something and offer to “reheat’ it.

Nerve’s first section, “Shame,” is the least successful in the book, perhaps because it takes on the most slippery subject. Shame is the path to sexual nirvana for people like Mr. M., and its frisson can heighten sex in ways both subtle and not. But shame is also wretchedness, the face-burning stuff that gushes so alarmingly from Todd Solondz’s film Happiness. The five pieces in the chapter, including Goldstein’s adolescent reminiscence, swagger more than they skulk, skating above the fear that winds through sex and nakedness. But that type of shame generally isn’t very sexy, which may be why the editors pulled their punches.

The manifesto Field and Griscom originally sent authors stated the goals of Nerve.com as “flushed faces, genitals, or perhaps just reflective thought.” Nerve succeeds more often at the latter two: Many of the stories dance, and you can beat off to them. For those who prefer their stimuli visual, the book includes a handful of photographs, mostly of nekkid ladies, by Richard Kern, Andres Serrano, Vivienne Maricevic, Sylvia Plachy, and other edgy artists.

The editors’ desire for Nerve to be upbeat and sex-positive is also made clear by the section sequence, which moves past “Shame” to “Fringes,” “Taboo,” “Habits,” “Debauchery,” and “Reportage” before ending up at “Love Stories.” The sequence parallels Field and Griscom’s healthy journey as a couple, revealed in their introductions to each. They promise in the first introduction, “[A]fter many months of encouraging writers to bare themselves on the page, it was only appropriate that we do the same.” You find out as you go through the book that Genevieve didn’t achieve orgasm until she was 25 and that Rufus, who looks like a young Jeremy Irons, gets hot when he smells Nivea because it was his masturbation goo one summer. You expect the money shot in “Love Stories,” where they alternate accounts of their meeting, but instead they draw the curtains, as if in a ’40s movie, after they e-mail, start sharing lunch, and think about each other a lot. Their little tease, however, is perfectly appropriate to their madame’s role and does not diminish what their ‘zine and book accomplish. Field and Griscom have gotten a skilled stable of writers to put out admirably, and they should enjoy the aphrodisiac success. CP