Steve Almond's Existential Pleasures

Steve Almond will be at BookPeople on Monday, May 13, at 7pm.
Steve Almond will be at BookPeople on Monday, May 13, at 7pm.

In English, there are no non-cheesy manuals on ars amatoria. Not that English literature is devoid of great smut -- there's Henry Miller, there's D.H. Lawrence when he wasn't trying to make some chthonic point, there's Anaïs Nin, and there's that part of Gravity's Rainbow where Slothrop actually somehow gets inside his own cock on board the S.S. Anubis. But the erotic writer, in English, really has to do it from scratch and graffiti. Sex, in English, is treated as one of life's luxuries -- it is the advertising, not the good itself. Whereas, for the great erotic writer, sex is just the holy one and central theme -- the terror of life, the register, the tempering of that curious instrument homo sapiens.

In his story "How to Love a Republican," Steve Almond's narrator, David, a liberal policy wonk, is enthralled with Darcy, a Republican apparatchik, although she's far from his ideological type. He makes a point that is adumbrated, more or less, by all the men in My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove, $23) his glittering collection of 12 stories:

Steve Almond's Existential Pleasures

There are so many competing interests on the human heart. For those of us truly terrified of death, intent on leaving some kind of mark, plowing through our impatient twenties with an agenda, there are moments when chemistry -- the chemistry between bodies, the chemistry of connection -- seems no more than a sentimental figment. And then something happens, you meet a woman and you can't stop looking at her mouth. Everything she does, every word and gesture, stirs inside you, strikes the happy gong.

These sentiments set up a story that divulges such saucy details about Darcy and Dave's coupling as Darcy's charmingly barbered pubic hair and Dave's exploration of her "entire intricate topography" via his tongue. The story takes a tragic-comic turn after the Supreme Court decision to reward Bush the presidency in December, 2000, interferes majorly with Dave's ability to lick Darcy into her usual orgasm.

Going down sounds the gong every time in Almond's stories. It is the title story, however, that throws this theme its most memorable party. Here we have another David, a journalist doing post-undergrad dog time as a music critic in El Paso. David is torn between the eminently compatible Jo Byron, his girlfriend, and a shy lifeguard, Claudia, by whose vast, drenching climaxes he is addictingly aroused. As David sees it, cheating on Jo was a way of "seeking love on all fronts, transporting myself beyond the reach of loneliness and failure." However, it turns out loneliness and failure wait upon the man who presumes too much on his girlfriend's being away from home to screw another girl on her Guatemalan coverlet.

While Almond, for variety's sake, is willing to cede lust's ache once to a female narrator, and once to a middle aged professor, he gravitates to horny grad-school-age guys. And we appreciate it. Mailer and Roth are aging, and we need somebody out there willing to report on the existential pleasures of sexual engineering. Almond is just the man for the job.

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