Gerard grew up in Clearwater, a beach city near Tampa. She writes about how her otherwise incredulous parents (they met in a biker bar; he was wearing a baby-blue Jimmy Buffett T-shirt) fell into New Thought, a mind-healing movement.
Almost as bad, they signed on with Amway. That company, co-founded by the father-in-law of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, can, many have argued, resemble a pyramid scheme.
Gerard decides that dabbling with Amway was, in her perfect phrase, a form of “achievement tourism.” She writes, “We left reality for a moment and believed the impossible was possible.”
Gerard’s essay collection is one of two new books that examine the Florida experiment. The other is Jack E. Davis’s “Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” a sensitive and sturdy work of environmental history.
Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico does not belong solely to Florida. It is the 10th-largest body of water in the world. It touches several other countries — indeed, it is named for one of them — as well as other American states.
But Davis lives in Florida, and that state’s wet western edges run along a vast amount of the Gulf’, like salt on the rim of a cocktail. He can’t help but dwell often upon his home place.
Thanks to books by John Jeremiah Sullivan (“Pulphead”) and Leslie Jamison (“The Empathy Exams”) and a handful of other young writers, the essay collection has new impetus and drama in American letters. The essay has gained ground on the short story.
“Sunshine State” deserves to be talked about in this company, even if its essays are hit-and-miss. When Gerard is on, she is really on. She’s the author of one previous book, the novel “Binary Star” (2015).
The first essay is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire. It’s called “BFF,” and it’s about the author’s intense friendship with a girl who grew up to become a stripper and who spent time in shelters for battered women.
This essay is about attraction and betrayal, and has the sinister propulsion of a Mary Gaitskill short story. “You shinier,” Gerard writes about her friend. “You prettier. You taller. You thinner, more popular. In middle school, you had friends and I had you.”
They’d had tattoos on their hips that read, when they stood side by side, “Forever / & ever.” Their eventual split was devastating. The author had the means to get out of town; the friend did not.
Gerard catalogs the lies her friend told her, then she lists her own. She writes about her damage, splitting her face open while jumping from a train. This essay draws blood.
Many of the essays in “Sunshine State” fall somewhere between memoir and journalism. Two of the longer pieces, about work to care for the homeless in Florida and about a troubled bird sanctuary, are serious and impeccably reported. But the author’s voice is lost in the telling. She’s best when her evocations of the frenzy that is Florida are personal.
Historians, inspired by Fernand Braudel’s epic 1949 two-volume study of the Mediterranean Sea (1949), have written books about most of the world’s important bodies of water. Davis’s “Gulf” is the first comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico, a place that tends to be, he persuasively argues, “excluded from the central narrative of the American experience.”
Texas and Louisiana also have a great deal of Gulf-front real estate, and Davis’s book does not skimp on their histories. But since Gerard, Davis and I each grew up staring at the same blue-green water off Florida, I will stick with Florida in this review.
Davis carefully relates its history, from the state’s native people and its earliest European explorers, through the early history of the United States and the arrival of tourists, developers and those who would fish and hunt Florida to depletion.
The author has a well-stocked mind, and frequently views the history of the Gulf through the prism of artists and writers including Winslow Homer, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald.
His prose is supple and clear. About the arrival of motorized shrimp boats on the Gulf, he writes: “They pushed farther out into the Gulf, the classical music of a wind-driven sea passage drowned forever by the heavy metal of internal combustion and snorting exhaust. Fishers discovered that if they worked past sunset, their trawls were filling with a new kind of shrimp, browns, which rose near the surface at night.”
Davis’s book functions, as well, as a cri de coeur about the Gulf’s environmental ruin. His book runs up through the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That event aside, he writes, “Every day in the Gulf is an environmental disaster, originating from sources near and far, that eclipses the spill.”
“Goodbye North, Hello South,” Bessie Smith sang in “Florida Bound Blues.” “It’s so cold up here that the words freeze in your mouth.” The words in Gerard’s and Davis’s books are sun-warm and, in their way, optimistic. Both writers make the effort, essential to any form of love, to see their state plain.Continue reading the main story
It’s been 90 years since Lady Chatterley adulterously wove flowers into her lover’s pubic hair in D.H. Lawrence’s book, to the scandalized delight of readers wily enough to score early samizdat copies. But now that anything goes, now that we’ve seen it all, now that we have PornHub to amuse us on demand, is there anything left to get excited about? Should novelists try to counteract the numbing aspects of porn, as Gurganus advised in an interview, by giving the characters the gift of more active sex lives?
“There’s an inverse ratio between the abundance of pornography and the scarcity of sex in modern fiction,” he said. “We talk about where people live, what they earn, what they eat, what they drive, but we’re leaving out the question of their sexual pleasure, and that’s depriving them of something extremely important.”
Sex is notoriously tricky to describe. A writer’s tumescent member is a reader’s risible euphemism. “No throbbing manhoods,” declared Jennifer Weiner, who wants her fictional sex to be consistent with what her characters would normally do and say: “You try to make the way people behave toward one another when they’re in bed line up with the way they behave when they’re out of bed.”
In a climactic sex scene in the novel “Golden Hill,” set in mid-18th-century Manhattan, Francis Spufford’s narrator briefly steps outside the story to grumble to the reader. “How hard it is to describe a desirable woman without running into geography! Or the barnyard. Or the resources of the fruit-bowl,” he complains. “I do not want to write this part of the story.”
Stephen King agrees. “Every part of writing a novel is daunting, but very few novelists deal with sex very well,” he wrote in an email. “The act is usually far better than writing (or reading) about the act.”
Perhaps it was better in the old days, he added. “When I was a kid, reading my first adult paperbacks, the guy would take off the gal’s blouse … they would kiss … then there would be a double space, after which the story would resume the following morning.”
Not so much now. As luck would have it, lots of writers are up for writing about sex — even, or maybe especially, when the sex isn’t that good. (With her short story “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian has perhaps created a new vernacular for expressing the particular ways it can be not-good for women who think they want it, but who become repelled mid-encounter by the weird or sloppy or selfish or alarming behavior of the men they go home with.)
Indeed, a lot of literary fiction seems to feature glum lovers “who have two reluctant orgasms” before, basically, calling it a night, said Carmen Maria Machado, who relishes a saucy sex scene, especially from the point of view of women who like to have it with other women. “Often I feel when I’m reading sex scenes by men, there’s a sense of disdain for the female body, a sense of its alienness, its otherness,” she said in an interview. “But I like to write about sex,” she continued, “and I feel there’s a real joy to clear, joyful sex.”
The novelist Tom Perrotta said via email that he favors characters who “think and talk about sex all the time, but don’t have a lot of it.” (In his latest book, “Mrs. Fletcher,” his main character mostly sticks to porn.) Meanwhile, Anthony Marra’s story collection “The Tsar of Love and Techno” includes a scene between a pair of desperately-in-love teenagers who have sex as if they were the first to discover it. Their age “allows for a little descriptive leeway, because so much of adolescent life is overwrought to begin with,” Marra said in an email.
Writing with pungent frankness about sex in “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” Geoff Dyer was inspired by the lyrical yet matter-of-fact gay eroticism in such Alan Hollinghurst novels as “The Line of Beauty.” “I was struck that he was writing this classical prose and then without any change of register suddenly he was writing in this very explicit, up-to-date way,” Dyer said. “I wondered whether it was possible to do a heterosexual version of that.”
He also wanted to be sure everyone knew who was doing what when, how and to whom. “Generally speaking, I get frustrated and irritated when I can’t tell what’s happening” in a novel, Dyer said. “I want to know who’s speaking and where they’re going and all that.” So for his sex scenes, “I wanted it to be, ‘This goes there and he does this. …’ Just the sort of mechanics of it. It was technically interesting because even moving people around — getting them in and out of rooms — is difficult.”
What doesn’t work? “Ocean metaphors — those are terrible,” said Daniel Handler, whose latest book, “All the Dirty Parts,” fulfills the promise of its title.
This brings us to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which since 1993 has been given annually by Literary Review magazine in Britain to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.”
Over the years, writers have been cited for their overly creative synonyms for male genitalia (“his bulging trousers,” “his old battering ram,” “the billiard rack,” “a plank,” “his peg,” “my pole,” “his big generative jockey,” “the Hound”) and female genitalia (“her sap,” “her viscera,” “her relief map of mysteries,” “her assemblage,” “her pelvic saddle,” “her most unmentionable body part” and “the no man’s land between her ‘front parlor’ and ‘back door’”).
Placed in elaborate metaphorical forests, seascapes, gardens, transformative celestial planes and ecstatic alternative universes, the characters can be found in various convoluted configurations, biting, gasping, whacking, smacking, glugging, grabbing, grinding, gripping, grunting, scratching, swallowing, squeaking, sucking, stroking, lathering, panting, prodding, moaning, thrusting, tugging, rubbing and rattling. If they’re lucky, they might achieve a “Wagnerian crescendo,” or at least a “puny muscular spasm.”
As in real life, the male ego is disproportionately large. “Male writers often have vaginas squeezing the sides of penises to show how into it the women are,” said Frank Brinkley, assistant editor of the magazine, speaking of nominees for the prize. “For men, it often needs to be bigger and larger and the best sex ever and better than the sex before, and it’s clear that the man’s penis is brilliant and the woman loves it and it’s the best one she’s ever seen.”
It’s hard to pick the best (worst) Bad Sex winner. But many people familiar with the prize have a soft spot for the 2015 recipient, Morrissey, former lead singer of the Smiths, for a passage in his debut novel, “List of the Lost.” Not only does he use the phrase “bulbous salutation,” but also he describes how it — the bulbous salutation, that is — “whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
That made people think of the London Underground, which they found especially amusing.
As Jonathan Beckman, a Literary Review editor, wrote at the time: “For future reference, the best way to reach the otherwise central zone is almost certainly by getting off the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus.”Continue reading the main story