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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Gore Vidal & Terry Southern
THE MANDARIN AND THE HIPSTER
The Smart Smut of Gore Vidal and Terry Southern
Do you remember when the word dildo first, um, penetrated your consciousness? I do, vividly. It was at Parent’s Weekend in fall 1968 at Cornell University, in my freshman dorm room. My roommate Scott Brown was regaling some of us with a reading of the climactic scene of Gore Vidal’s notorious new novel Myra Breckenridge. Myra, the self-proclaimed avatar of vengeful femininity, has her sacrificial victim, the would-be Hollywood stud Rusty Goldowsky, secured to an examination table, his pants pulled down and his “tiny sphincter” exposed to her greedy gaze. She straps on a dildo (helpfully specified as “over two inches long at the head and nearly a foot long”), puts her “battering ram to the gate,” and proclaims triumphantly, “Now you will find out what it is the girl feels when you play the man with her.” Her exertions end with this ecstatic apostrophe:
I was like a woman possessed, riding, riding my sweating stallion into forbidden country, shouting with joy as I experienced my own sort of orgasm, oblivious to his staccato shrieks as I delved and spanned his innocent flesh. Oh, it was a holy moment! I was at one with the Bacchae, with all the priestesses of the dark, bloody cults––
At which point my roommate’s father and mother entered the room, the book was hastily shoved under a pillow and we all strived to pretend that we’d been shooting the breeze like healthy college boys rather than being in the thrall of a dildo-wielding bacchante. But that passage had been quite a revelation all right in terms of both physiology and rhetoric, and I was soon, perhaps not coincidentally, to change my major from biology to literature.
Not that the farther shores of erotic desire hadn’t already touched my imagination. A paperback copy of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s raunchy comic satire Candy had burned its way through my circle of teenage horndogs the year before, and full-throated cries of “I need your warmth!,” “Give me your hump!,” and “Good grief, it’s Daddy!,” were heard to echo enigmatically in the Brooklyn Streets. So I was well prepared to encounter another exercise in the sort of smart, subversive smut that made the sixties so much fun to be a reader in. Both Vidal, in his high-mandarin way, and Southern, in his irreverent hipster fashion, knew how to take aim at the groin, the funny bone, and the literary sensibility all at once––a difficult feat to pull off and never better accomplished than in these two books.
But then, it is interesting to recall how central breakthroughs into the erotically proscribed were to some major American literary careers in that period. Consider: Norman Mailer’s An American Dream (heterosexual buggery); William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch (buggery of every conceivable description, erotic strangulation); John Updike’s Couples (suburban adultery, sacramental cunnilingus); Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (masturbation and plenty of it). Authors and publishers had stormed through the gates opened by the 1958 publication of Lolita, and the bluenoses had been routed, seemingly for good. And women authors were soon to seize the opportunities afforded by these new freedoms, most notable in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks. It is also interesting, and a little depressing, to contemplate how little new literary capital has been created from the unlimited freedoms now afforded. In the past two decades the only notable dirty book I can recall is Nicholson Baker’s lubricious novel of phone sex, Vox. Oh sure, Nerve.com purveys what it calls “literate smut,” but it feels a bit tame and beside the point in comparison to the Himalayas of hardcore now endlessly available. Which makes it all the more surprising that Candy and Myra Breckenridge still retain their power to amuse and arouse after all these years.
Candy, as most people know, is roughly modeled on Voltaire’s Candide and relates the erotic misadventures of Candy Christian, a naïve All-American sexpot perpetually ready to minister to the sexual needs of others, no matter how bizarre or disingenuously stated. Her odyssey of serially debauched innocence leads her form the classrooms of Racine, Wisconsin, to the fleshpots of Greenwich Village to a utopian cult community to the mountains of Tibet as she gives herself to her college professor, a Mexican gardener, a slavering hunchback, and a disconcertingly familiar guru, among others. All this is related with delicious high spirits, a sort of faux-porn diction (“honey pot,” “fabulous lamb pit,” “seething thermal pudding,” etcetera), and a winking elaborateness that marries parody with put-on. I particularly cherish Candy’s filthy-minded and foul-mouthed Aunt Livia, who is given to such effusions as “I’m in the mood for cock and plenty of it. About ten pounds, please, thick and fast,” “Get me out of these sopping wet pants and into a dry martini,” and “When I was in Italy I got into to much of that hot dago cock that I stopped menstruating and started minestroneing.” Resistance was futile.
While it reads today like an echt-sixties novel, Candy was in fact written in 1958 as a “db” (dirty book) for the erotic Traveller’s Companion series of Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton. Both Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern were cash-strapped American literary expats at the time, and the job was undertaken for some easy money. Hoffenberg, a poet/junkie who claimed (fascinating fact) to have hooked Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, and Nico on heroin and had already written two earlier books for Girodias, played renegade Jew to Southern’s Texas hipster aesthete and the two got along famously. According to Lee Hill’s biography A Grand Guy, it was Hoffenberg who contributed such elements as Dr. Krankheit, a Wilhelm Reich send-up, and Aunt Livia’s filthy repartee. But it was Southern who did most of the literary heavy lifting, and nobody familiar with his delicious script for Dr. Strangelove or his satirical masterpiece The Magic Christian can doubt for a second that Candy is essentially his book. Its refusal to take sex seriously was of a piece with his subsequent treatment of nuclear war and the grotesque – then and now – American way of life. Candy was a proleptic novel of the first order and one of the main reasons that Southern was immortalized by having his photo collaged on the cover of Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles. It was finally published by Putnam in 1964 and was an immediate sensation, one that made Terry Southern famous but not rich; a copyright technicality put the book in the public domain, breeding numerous pirated editions and an interminable, byzantine dispute over royalties. What is remarkable about Candy from this distance is how accurately its over-the-top satire and its demolition of sexual pieties anticipated and even helped to create the irreverent counter-culture sensibility: Candy was love-bead ready when the inevitable and mediocre film adaptation rolled around in 1968.
Gore Vidal was a friend and admirer of Terry Southern, calling him “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation” and he could not have failed to have had the example of Candy in mind as he embarked on his own adventure in black-humored sexual satire, Myra Breckinridge. Like Candy, the book had its inception in a high-porn enterprise: Kenneth Tynan had asked Vidal to contribute a sketch to his planned erotic review Oh Calcutta! But as soon as he set to work, the mysterious sentence “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess” sprang to mind and Vidal knew he was heading somewhere else entirely. The book became an outrageous theater of polymorphous perversity, a heady cocktail of Aristophanes, Marcuse, and Nietzsche married to an encyclopedic knowledge of the American cinema of the thirties and forties. One of the great creations of postwar fiction, Myra has come to Hollywood claiming to be the widow of Myron Breckinridge, a deceased film critic and Parker Tyler aficionado. She lays claim to his inheritance, one-half ownership of the Academy of Drama and Modeling, run by Myron’s uncle Buck Loner, an old-time cowboy actor. While Buck and Myra dice over the estate and she teaches classes there, she concentrates sub rosa on a larger, madder project: the final sexual demoralization and conquest of the increasingly irrelevant heterosexual male (“…the phallus cracks; the uterus opens, and I am at last ready to begin my mission, which is to recreate the sexes and thus save the human race from certain extinction,” she explains with no hint of false modesty). “She” – the quotes are necessary, for Myra is, of course, a transsexual, if just – is quite cracked, of course, but divinely so, in the pagan sense.
Vidal has never been more Nabokovian than in Myra Breckinridge. His heroine’s unshakable sense of her own mission is of a piece with that of the narrator of Pale Fire – “Alone of all women I know what it is like to be a goddess, enthroned and all-powerful.” Then there is an ecstatic quality to the prose quite unique in Vidal’s oeuvre, not unlike Nabokov’s at high lyric flood – she released something in his usually cooler sensibility. Myra became a wonderful vehicle for Vidal to channel his late-sixties anger and despair over a Vietnam-mired America in the midst of a violent crack-up, as well as a fine mouthpiece for some witty asides on the French nouveau roman, then all the critical rage. The book is very aware of itself as a literary performance – postmodern before the term had gained any currency. Finally, and most originally, Vidal lavishes the sort of attention on the movies that Nabokov reserved for butterflies. Myra’s sole and encyclopedic frame of reference is the classic Hollywood movie – Pandro S. Berman and James Craig have had no more ardent a student – and Myra Breckinridge is a real monument in the growth of film consciousness in this country. Too bad it, like Candy, was made into a mediocre movie.
That switch of majors didn’t turn out too badly, and when I became a book editor it afforded me the opportunity to repay the favor to the creators of these wonderful books, which came along right at the moment when I needed them. I now serve as Gore Vidal’s editor, not that he needs me. And in the middle eighties I was able to bring Candy as well as The Magic Christian back into print in paperback editions, which was a kick, to say the least. Heh-heh-heh. And this occasioned one of my best publishing anecdotes.
Soon after the deal for the two books was agreed on I arranged to lunch with Terry Southern. We met, for the first time, in the basement of O’Neal’s, at Ffity-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, and while we were waiting to be seated in this rather crepuscular restaurant, we somehow got onto the subject of race and my teenage envy of black guys for their superior basketball skills, their superior dancing moves, and, I had to believe, their superior sexual abilities. Which last launched Terry – by that stage in his life a fairly disheveled being – into the following monologue, delivered in a broad Texas drawl:
“That reminds of a story about old Jim Brown. You know who Jim Brown was, don’t you? [I assured Terry that I did.] Well, back in the early sixties I was dating this model poon, and when we got back to her apartment her roommate, also a model poon, was on the phone telling someone all about her date the night before with the football player Jim Brown. And I wasn’t listening very hard until I heard this model poon say, quite clearly, ‘And it was so big I couldn’t get my mouth around it!’”
Deeply dirty and appreciative chuckle. “Jim Brown.”
That set the tone for one of the most bibulous lunches of my publishing career, little of which I remember. But two hours and five bourbons apiece later we stumbled up the stairs into the bright summer sunlight. And as we strolled in a thick and pleasant alcoholic fog along Fifty-seventh and then up Madison in the direction of the Penguin offices I looked across the street and noticed a handsome and very athletic-looking black man walking in conversation with a smaller white man. The black man was built like some sort of superbly fashioned logging tool, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist, a leather jacket hanging off his muscular frame. He was wearing tight blue jeans as well, so tight that they left little doubt that this man’s love muscle was as developed as all the rest. And there was something familiar about this guy. Very familiar…
And so I turned to Terry and declared to him delightedly, “Look over there, Terry. See that black guy? My God, do you know who that is? That is…JIM BROWN!”
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York. His essays and reviews have appeared in Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, n+1, Slate, and other publications.