Saturday, November 13, 2010

Henry Miller & Me

It was a given, in the writing of DRY HUSTLE, that there were going to be some sex scenes. Duh. This meant I was going to realize a long-cherished dream of rewriting Henry Miller.

When I was entering puberty, my family (two parents, four kids ages 9 to 16) embarked on a trip to Europe, starting in Paris. Our babysitter was 18 and very uninterested in childcare (she quit mid-trip). What did interest her was racy books banned in the U.S. Henry Miller's "Sexus" was one of those. She picked up a copy in Paris, intending to read it before she went back home so she wouldn't be caught smuggling it past customs.

We took a boat from Italy to Greece. I shared a cramped cabin with her, in which I commandeered the top bunk. I woke to the sound of sniggering. Climbing down, I sawmy two older brothers perched on either side of the babysitter on her bed, looking over her shoulder as she read some book.

A few months after we returned, I became 12. I don't know if this is a symptom of pubescence, but around then I started sneaking into other family members' rooms to look in their drawers. I found a "marriage manual" (sex guide) in my parents drawer. It read like a science book and thus was unmemorable. Still, no one had ever told me anything about sex so it was a start. I rifled through my brothers' drawers. I found books about male sexual development given to the boys by my parents. There were gross cross-section illustrations of the male genitalia and descriptions of erection and ejaculation. Again, highly scientific and scrupulously designed not to arouse anybody.

My brother Denny was trying out photography, developing his own prints in a bathroom upstairs. I found a stack of photos of individual book pages. He must have photographed the "dirty" parts of the babysitter's illicit copy of "Sexus." I stole them. My brother could hardly complain that they were missing: he would be admitting to his own crime of possessing them in the first place.

Locking myself in my bathroom I assembled the pages in order and read. What the hell was this? What was a "cunt"? It wasn't in the big dictionary in the living room. What was a "prick"? It sounded sharp. Why were people always "coming" and never going? And what was "fuck"? (This is 1959, yo.) The writing was blunt, crass even, but the text gave me a feeling of arousal, which was also new and inexplicable. Therefore, these pages held power.

I pored over them incessantly. I managed to put all the pieces together and figure out what each word meant and what these characters were doing, also incessantly.

Later, I was able to bring a critical eye to the writer's style. It seemed repetitious and sort of flattening. I'm aware now that there are some lusciously poetic passages in Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn" and that he was a much better writer than the "dirty parts" would lead you to believe. But I found I preferred "Lady Chatterley's Lover," after I stole my mother's copy.

When I came to writing DRY HUSTLE, more than a decade later, it was my turn. On one hand, my approach to the sex scenes was influenced by the bold tell-it-like-it-is style of Henry Miller. On the other hand, I thought I could do better.

Whether or not I did, Henry Miller had already trumped me by being banned.

1 comment:

  1. By the time I heard about the forbidden Henry Miller, Grove Press was publishing him.

    But jeez, those books were as big as "The Grapes of Wrath."

    Except for "Quiet Days in Clichy." So that was my intro to the four-letter world of blunt, and what rhymes with it.