Friday, January 06, 2012

John Thomas and Pornographic Muzak*

Dwight Garner wrote recently in The New York Times that Joshua Cody’s memoir, entitled “[sic],” is “Updikean in its cerebral raunch.” If you’ve read enough Updike, you know exactly what Garner meant, for Updike often tapped into that Olympia Press slice of his id when describing sex.
Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich,” the third of the quartet chronicling the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, is rich in raunch, from a scene involving Krugerrands to a long, libidinous episode of couple swapping in the Caribbean. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley declared the novel “reeks of vulgarity” and “gratuitous sexual detail.” Updike thought the book the “happiest” in the series, and “Rabbit Is Rich” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1982. It’s my favorite Updike novel.
Garner’s use of “raunch” sent me back to the early 1960s, when this young reader with hormones aflame sought knowledge and excitement from two novels that could not be more different in style or intent: D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Harold Robbins’ “The Carpetbaggers.”
My parents had squirreled away both novels in a modest bookcase, their spines reversed so a certain 12-year-old wouldn’t stumble onto such adult content, a strategy that naturally backfired. When my parents went out, I avidly read the books, starting with “Lady Chatterley,” a long-suppressed novel that had only recently received legal clearances, first here, then in England (see Ben Yagoda’s excellent history of the English case, “Trial and Eros” in the Autumn 2010 issue of The American Scholar: Paperback houses rushed to publish the unexpurgated version of “Lady Chatterley,” often reprinting the New York Federal Court’s decision as a way to legitimize the publication of such incendiary material—incendiary for the times.
I ignored the legalese and dived right into the affair between Constance Chatterley and the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, who referred to his penis as “John Thomas,” a sobriquet I’d never heard on the streets of Flushing, where my friends regularly rattled off a litany of colorful nicknames for the organ in question. Lawrence peppered his prose with lots of forbidden words, and Constance and Mellors made lots of love, but Lawrence’s seriousness of purpose and lyrical style could not compete for an adolescent’s febrile imagination when the pulpy shenanigans of “The Carpetbaggers” were, shall we say, at hand.
In “The Carpetbaggers,” Robbins appropriated the lives of Howard Hughes, Jean Harlow and other Hollywood types, called them different names (Jonas Cord, Rina Marlowe), added sex, and spun a roman à clef that sold millions and inspired two movies: an adaptation in 1964 that’s so bad it makes for a fun, wasteful two hours of viewing, and “Nevada Smith,” a 1966 spin-off with Steve McQueen, no classic but a better film than the first.
Robbins, a former accountant who wrote to make money and subsidize a lavish life, had no illusions about his work. No one would ever confuse Robbins with D.H. Lawrence or John Updike; in a wonderful episode of “Fawlty Towers,” Basil (John Cleese) describes Robbins’ work as “pornographic Muzak” and “trans-Atlantic tripe.” Fair enough. But after all these years, “The Carpetbaggers” remains a page-turner, and I remember passages from it as well as anything in “Lady Chatterley,” which says something about my fondness for raunch, cerebral or not.
*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views.


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