I grew up in the Deep South, within Spanish-moss enshrouded woods west of the Okeefenokee swamp, surrounded by neighbors whose kids routinely lost their virginity to pets. One kid, Reid, was so brazen with Sugarplum, his Maltese poodle, that his father forced him to wed the pooch. That’s why I was deeply moved by Richard Cummings’s Immortalists.
No, it’s not about bestiality in the swamps, but sex and death in the Hamptons, a kind of Okeefenokee of the solvent. Enter Joe Forcione, a 60-year-old investment banker with an erector set for a penis and an overweening fear of death, plus gorgeous ocean-front property and a propensity for meeting future cryogens, as I suppose one calls those who have paid dearly to get turned into popsicles, post-mortem, for future reference.
It is one of those very rare books whose page speaks directly to one’s life. Well, my life, which is pathetic since I’m nowhere near 60. In fact, I’m nowhere near 50, though I’m nearer 50 than I am to 60; in fact I’m nearer 45 than I am to 40. Which is ominous because my life, like Forcione’s, has been devoted entirely to a Talmudic study of my corpus animus for signs of death forthcoming and painful—and protracted—which, according to Schopenhauer, not to mention my uncle Louis in Brighton Beach (“Oh, no, no, don’t visit, no, Karl, it’s not a good day, no, I’m not doing well. Send your wife, have her wear leather.”) is a pretty good summation of life.
Joe’s pursuit of eternal life and membership in a deep-freeze club (sort of a corporeal metaphor for his trouser trout, for which he has had a manual inflation device installed) gets him carnal knowledge in countless ways, while my religion of escaping death by studying its vehicles has only qualified me to practice medicine illegally. For example, years ago—well before I had my first mid-life crisis at 16—when others my age were learning to tie knots, and light fires with flint—I was ensconced in the medical school library stacks trying to convince myself I’d somehow contracted a rare cancer of the balls afflicting only members of a mountain tribe in New Guinea.
Luckily, they turned out to be sore from overuse. Auto-stimulation, it seems, is not something one should practice more than nine times a day. Thank God palms don’t grow hair. I’d have a stylist by now.
Not long after my bar mitzvah, during which I accidentally recited the seven warning signs of cancer, I received a double mastectomy, having read that men—especially men who wear T-shirts that have been used to plug leaks at nuclear facilities—can develop breast cancer. Indeed, I’ve had so much radioactive barium piped into my alimentary canal over the years, you can see my colon through my shirt. Of course now, since losing health insurance, I can’t actually afford a doctor, so I see an anthropologist. He tells me I’m human, I feel better.
I am now going to turn to random pages. I haven’t even read the book yet, but the back cover states that Richard Cummings is an international lawyer and an acclaimed author—while I am a proud graduate of the North Florida Bible College. I will now turn pages randomly to decide if it is, in fact, a book any page of which speaks directly to one’s life. Page 27: “I’m going to die,” Joe blurted out, “I had this dream where I had this weird fatal brain disease.”
That hit me like a pre-emptive but entirely justified Patriot Missile strike to my WMDs. Just last week I had cancer of the right tonsil, or I thought I did. Before discovering the pallid nodule was actually a fragment of Viagra, I’d been frantic, searching the web for symptoms and prognosis. I found this tonsil cancer website: www.removeyourhead.com. “White spot, won’t go away, no pain, too late, die.” There was even an e-mail list, where I read this exchange:
Worried: I have had this white spot on my tonsil for weeks. It doesn’t hurt though, and now one of the lymph nodes under my arm is painlessly enlarged. So is my penis. What should I do?
Page 74: Hours passed and the Japanese doctor reappeared. “Your father is stitched back together. Will live... the woman so sorry is dead.” Again, a passage that speaks to my life. Incredibly, my father recently had a prostate biopsy. It was benign, I should add, though the biopsy, which involves getting a device the size of Mike Tyson’s (gloved) fist shoved up one’s ass, isn’t. This device, as if that weren’t bad enough, shoots little stainless steel javelins through the rectum wall into the prostate. Meanwhile, the doctor, as always, expects one to engage him in conversation about the bond market, or the resale value of his Lexus. What you’re thinking, while groaning in agony, is, what if he misses? Amazingly, one doesn’t get bragging rights for medical procedures, just for shark bites, parachuting accidents, and war crimes. Imagine a scene at a bar:
“Lookit here,” (man on a bar stool, resembling Ollie North—in fact, it is Ollie North—turns to another man on the stool next to him, resembling that little smarmy git who used to hover in William F. Buckley’s shadow like a pilot fish, what was his name? Oh, yes, Nixon), “Here’s a wound I got from a sand viper in Qatar when I was negotiating a Snickers-for-cell phones deal for Richard Perle recently. I nearly died.”
“Oh, well, look at this,” says the wimp, pulling out a large, black and very sinister snake-like instrument. “This is the very colonoscope my gastroenterologist, Dr. Schitzenfahts used recently to examine my transverse colon for polyps.”
“My God, how did you survive?”
“Demerol, and a Fleets.”
Back to my dad’s exam (and anyone who has had the prostate massaged and I have, believe me, because I am often convinced I have prostate cancer). When I was 16, I demanded that the doctor examine me, which he did, with a ball peen hammer, just to teach me a lesson. I left the office in tears, unable to walk, but deeply grateful. Anyone, as I said, familiar with a prostate massage will wince in sympathetic agony imagining how a trans-rectal spear-gun to the prostate must feel—not good.
And my mother had died, as well. Car accident, a month before my dad’s biopsy, blood splashed across her purse, which my dad nonchalantly lifted from the back seat of his car that day, from among the other belongings handed to him when he went to ID the corpse at the Jacksonville hospital. “Impaled on the steering wheel, they think,” he said, while unzipping his fly prior to strolling down the block to sleep with a neighbor he married, like, a week later. My father. Joe Facione. It murders me to think both are having more carnal knowledge at 72 than I’ve had since I was old enough to get a woody. Damn them both.
Page 103: While Joe and Malachy were eating, Olga let the bathrobe drop to the floor. She was naked, her stomach protruding slightly with her pregnancy.
“Before you go, the two of you should make love to me. Undress.”
And they do. Olga is a masseuse who got pregnant from Joe who, as I may have mentioned, has an erectile pump and Viagra cache, and the kind of good fortune with complete strangers that men half his age are forced to get vicariously from Vivid Video titles like “The Butt Masters,” or “Regarding Heinie.” While Malachy is a priest with the power, unwanted and unwarranted, to heal by touch, Joe gets an in-flight hand job en route to Switzerland from a beautiful stewardess who sees that he’s reading a book of poetry written by her great grandfather. She later fucks him prolifically.
He is going there, to Switzerland, to get injections of sheep-gland extract, designed to extend his life. A sub-theme here is that money is a kind of prosthetic for mortality, allowing one to buy the illusion that one can pay for immortality. Also, if you have a lot of money you can have a lot of sex. And that, is, in fact, a kind of immortality.
Now I’m going to read the book. But first I’ll say that, like Joe, I was afraid to die until I finally settled down with a job and a family. Now I look forward to it. No longer can I have sex on a city bus heading uptown, which I did, about 20 years ago. It was a crowded bus, I have no idea who I had sex with—maybe it wasn’t even sex, I may have gotten my dick caught in an ashtray. But it’s the thought, the knowledge that it’s over now, which brings us back to The Immortalists all about one’s life being over years before the denouement. Now, physically decimated, sitting at a computer console, I am an example of why, I suppose, the woman in the cubicle next to mine is moaning loudly now, climactically, as she flips through Playgirl. This is not life. My penis actually turned to papyrus and fell off two weeks ago. I didn’t notice, until I found it in the dryer. At first I thought it was lint.
KP Greenberg’s play For Real will show in Ithaca, NY this summer and this autumn at 78th Street Theatre.
The Immortalists is available at www.inprint.com, and watch the next issue of the BrooklynRail for Alan Lockwood’s (legitimate) profile of its author, Richard Cummings.
K.P. GREENBERG covers the auto business for a marketing trade magazine. He is also an actor and playwright, whose monologue “For Real” will be produced at 78th Street Theatre in September 2003.