Ron Kolm, Carol Wierzbicki, Jim Feast,
Steve Dalachinsky, Yuko Otomo, and Shalom Neuman, eds.
The Unbearables Big Book of Sex
If you’re opening up this page turner to get turned on, be warned: Most of the subject matter in the 140-plus stories, poems, essays, and artwork that make up the 640-page anthology, The Unbearables Big Book of Sex, is closer to Camus than cunnilingus. Although there are some erotic and graphic passages, these gritty, compassionate, and sexy pieces prove that you can take sex out of writing but you can’t keep a writer from writing about sex. What makes sex so interesting to write and read about is not the two or three lines, paragraphs, or pages of coitus, but what comes directly before, after, and in between them.
It is rare, in an anthology this voluminous, for the work to remain so consistently intriguing from beginning to end. What comes to the surface is the breadth of compassion each writer displays for the contradictions and varieties of life, and the characters at play in it. The book is roughly divided into thematic sections; it moves from the human condition, reflected in sex, to the mundanity of the act, to the opposite of erotica, deviant behavior, sexual violence, some verse, and finally essays about sex or sexual behavior (my least favorite section).
“Maupin Row,” by editor Ron Kolm, depicts an educated couple living in a redneck shack that’s too cold for intimacy in winter. Through resourcefulness and sheer desperation, the couple turns to date nights in their pickup. The male narrator writes: “We finally came up with an ingenious solution to solve our sexual woes; we’d hop into our half-ton pickup truck, drive to the East Tennessee State University parking lot, and fuck in the cab while keeping the engine running and the heater on.”
A classic line of sexual ennui comes from a short stanza in Hortensia’s verse, “Another Night In Gotham”:
After i come and
Before he does, i get bored
Rami Shamir’s dissolute characters barely have a chance to come up for air in their spin cycle full of dashed hopes and dreams, as one character comes face to face with the reality of just having had sex with an HIV-positive partner, and muses: “life sucks out the thunder and the flash really really quick.”
J. Boyett continues to keep things real in “Names Are Removed” by deftly portraying a landscape of sex and love, a place where memories and images are disjointed and brief, overlaid, on top of one another in a kaleidoscope of missed opportunities, aborted launchings, and regret. At the end of a contemplative jag, Boyett’s character muses: “I feel things about J. But the odds are that, by the time you read this, I won’t feel very much about her anymore at all.”
Sex and gender are given a humorous send up in Chavisa Woods’s poem,: “What Are You Some Kind of Angry Dyke or Something?” which includes such pearls as:
When I’m fucking a woman
With my hand
I’m just a lesbian
When I’m fucking a man
Who used to be a woman
I’m a queer
And when I’m fucking a woman
Who used to be a man
I’m probably really straight
The real endurance award goes to Samuel R. Delany whose excerpt from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders takes place in a damp, gritty men’s room where the red-hot hillbilly sex narrative only stops for an offer of employment to haul garbage, or the timed flush of water through the urinal trough. This amazing example of stamina and writing could alternatively have been titled, “One Job, Two Hand Jobs, and 400 Blow Jobs.”
Tsaurah Litzky holds onto her well-deserved crown of Queen of Downtown Erotica in “Run-In” with a final culminating sequence in a cramped bar bathroom between her protagonist and her protagonist’s ex-husband. “I felt the hog twitch and swell deep in my belly; maybe he was going to come inside me anyway. He was grunting hard, but he slid out just in time and shot all over my ass. He rubbed it in with his big hands.”
Unfortunately, not everyone can pull off bathroom sex as well, as exhibited in Steve Cannon’s excerpt from Groove, Bang and Jive Around where, even aided by an ever-so-willing suspension of disbelief, airplane-bathroom sex just doesn’t seem plausible, at least not in this day and age when you can’t seem to even close the toilet door without holding in your breath.
Unfortunately, along with sex comes the serious, lasting legacy of violence, and the ways in which unwanted sexual attention can cause emotional pain and scarring, as dealt with in works by Anna Mockler, Jose Padua, the cartoon piece “K-9’s First Time” with art by Fly, and Donald Breckenridge’s excerpt from This Young Girl Passing. In Breckenridge’s story, long ago gestures of power and control are reenacted when two characters stick firm to an original dynamic set by an illicit affair between teacher and student 20 years previously. Rape and borderline rape are the subjects of Ellen Lytle’s “His Favorite Girl” and Chris Heffernan’s “Early.”
In another of the many eloquent and moving stories, Dirk Blando begins “Garden View” with his geriatric narrator claiming, “I cannot be honest about sex. So I do not write about it.” Yet, the narrator produces one of the most honest, underinflated paragraphs in this wry, delicate story. He describes making love with his longtime lover:
We are two skeletons, rubbing delightedly together. But we are not dead bones, but alive ones, enjoying scraping our bones sheathed in flesh and nerves, alive with the sensations just as living colored coral reefs squirm with life.
What a pleasure it is to come across a book so full of life with all its nuances. The actual size of this anthology has made it easier for its editors to be inclusive: man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, agony/ecstasy; our life force is comingled, confused, craving, coming, cranky, and finally, at times, contemplative, and perhaps, at rest.
Nava Renek lives in Brooklyn. Her novel Spiritland is forthcoming from Spuyten Duvil in the Fall of 2002.