Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sex, With E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died last week Tuesday, at the age of 84. I've scanned my library to see how many of his titles I have. Seven, it turns out -- and I've given away five others. I did another inventory of sorts, and concluded he is probably the most partially-read author taking space on my shelves.

Not the send-off a lifelong Man Of Letters might hope for, but on deeper consideration it's not so bad, either. Sometimes a back-handed compliment remains a compliment nonetheless.

I've read five of his novels and one collection of short stories to completion, and made a bold start on all of the others. My first Doctorow novel was the mass-market paperback release of Billy Bathgate. I enjoyed it well enough, at the time, but also had some serious issues with it -- serious enough to initially relegate Doctorow to a second-tier of contemporary American writers, the sort I was inclined to "attend to the buzz, not the work."

His status evidently changed.

In Billy Bathgate, Doctorow's prose tilts toward the lyrical, a mode that either sways or dissuades, depending. Nowhere is this more evident than in his sex scenes, of which the book has two. I've gone and transcribed them elsewhere for you, but first a word of warning -- no illustrations, photos or gifs are involved, but if words alone can trigger the alarms of your employer's ISP, Doctorow's words will surely do it. NSFW, in other words, but over here I shall keep the discussion of them relatively prim.

Alright -- once again, NSFW  -- but if you feel you must, off you go: scene 1 and scene 2.

To summarize:

In scene 1 our titular hero is an adolescent guttersnipe who, now in the employ of gangster Dutch Schultz, has largesse at his disposal. He throws a party for his neighbourhood peers in a tenement boiler-room. At evening's end, when the others have either left or passed out, he finds that Rebecca, a young prostitute he's employed in the past, appears to view him, for once, as an object of desire. She initiates sexual congress, which concludes to their mutual satisfaction.

In scene 2 the slightly older Billy has Dutch's (significantly older) moll, Drew, to himself. A weird but understandably tense attraction has been growing between Billy and Drew, and in the privacy of New York State's farmland they no longer constrain themselves. They indulge in an initial, brief coupling in the car. Then Drew, completely naked, scampers into the woods, with the also-nude Billy in tow. They descend to swamp-level, where they cover themselves in mud, then walk hand-in-hand "like fairy-tale children [toward] this still pond as black as I had ever seen water to be and of course she waded in and bid me to follow and my God it was fetid, it was warm and scummy, my feet were in wet mats of pond weed, I treaded water to keep my feet from sinking and couldn't crawl back out fast enough but she swam on her back a few yards and then came crawling out on all fours, and she was covered with this invisible slime" -- invisible slime which, in the ensuing sentences, proves itself the Cambrian equivalent of KY Jelly.

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I discussed the book with others who'd read it, I argued that scene 1 persuaded, while scene 2 was an affront to any reader possessed of common sense. There were obvious reasons why Doctorow wrote it, and kept it there -- "fairy-tale children," Milton's Adam and Eve, only primordial and morally suspect from the git-go, a lampoon of Puritan America's own myth of origin, I get it, no mas! -- but Manhattan's brightest editors are paid the big bucks to challenge such self-indulgent impulses. Aren't they?

Twenty-five years later, having consumed or significantly sampled the bulk of Doctorow's work, it's evident this was simply his default mode. He was always pulling this shit. And especially with the sex. So much so that I imagine it amused him to hear of readers like myself getting their noses out of joint on the matter.

Anyway, Billy Bathgate was deposited in my used-book trade-in box, until a prof assigned The Book of Daniel as mandatory reading. It surprises me not at all to see The Book of Daniel mentioned more frequently and with more passion than any other Doctorow novel (including Ragtime) in reminiscences of the man and his work. That book knocked me on my ass, took my breath away -- it's the only Doctorow novel I recommend without reservation. It struck me when I was young and super-impressionable, and it's the sole reason why I've made a point of picking up everything else Doctorow's done.

In the main I tend to favour his essays, which are subtler in their mischief.

He wrote a loving eulogy for Abbie Hoffman, for example, elevating Hoffman's frequently egoistic street theatre to that of the Divinely-ordained biblical prophets. Doctorow's own dialogue with his inherited Abrahamic religion (and its offshoots) was deeply engaged and nuanced -- moreso than Hoffman's ever was. But Doctorow's unfeigned admiration for Hoffman came to mind as I recently perused the work of the West Coast Underground Comix artists.* Crumb, Deitch, Rodriguez -- these fellas and their cohort run the left-wing gamut, for the most part. But first and foremost and above all else, these guys are, to a man, robustly phallocentric in their critiques of what they deem the Dominant Culture.

It struck me, then, that this might well have been the effect Doctorow strove for. We may never know if Doctorow had any facility for stippling or cross-hatching, but he certainly flung around words like so much india ink. And he definitely had a hippie-dude's pornographic sensibility -- sex scenes aren't just scenes, alright? They're theatre, man! You don't like it, look away. Can't do it, can you?

So what if he couldn't be the singular East Coast Underground Comix artist -- he could still be Manhattan Island's ... what -- "bad boy of lit-fic"? That's no fun, there's no "x"! "Lix-fic"? At immediate blush I simply can't recall whether any of his protagonists summoned the wherewithal to issue oral stimulation, but hey -- why not? Let's just say it's so and make it so.
"I could be a randy nutter,
Get my gal to fetch the butter,
If I only drew a frame..."
L'chaim, and God rest, dude. You kept me reading long after I set your peers down for the last time.

*Underground Comix -- I can't decide if this subterranean preoccupation of mine is a curiosity, an obsession or a vice. Decide for yourself, why doncha: here is my on-line resource. The initial launching pad is relatively SFW. After that, proceed with caution.

And the late D.G. Meyers seems never to have troubled himself with Doctorow. He had some pertinent thoughts on sex and the novel, however.

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