Been reading a lot of fiction these days which means I’ve been reading a lot about love and sex. That’s what all fiction’s about, love and sex. Sometimes death. Sometimes money. But mainly love and sex with money and sex figuring into both of them or both of them figuring into the money and the death. And I’ve been trying to decide what are the sexiest and most romantic stories and passages I’ve read recently.
Certainly not the scenes of Sunderson the retired state police detective spying on his sixteen year old neighbor in her bedroom as she does yoga in the nude in Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader. But Sophie the artist’s model undressing but not to pose for the hero of Peter Heller’s The Painter? The spanking scene in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice? Any of the several bondage scenes in Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls or the scene of the student giving her professor a blow job in his office in Stone’s Death of the Black-Haired Girl?
“…he could only think of those long lips and those all-at-once---on a single day it seemed---suddenly knowing eyes.”
I always say it’s all in the eyes.
There isn’t much in the way of explicit sex in any of the stories in Paul Theroux’s collection Mister Bones but many of the stories revolve around love and romance. Most of them are sad though. Sharma Shields is very good on marriage in The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac but fortunately she doesn’t dwell on the love and sex because the central romance of the novel involves a runaway wife and mother and Bigfoot. And all the love and sex in Dostoevsky’s Devils is presented indirectly and is between neurotics and hysterics whose love lives are accordingly complicated and frustrating. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is one long love story, every page full of romance even the ones about motorcycles and violent strikes by factory workers in Rome.
But it’s not by default that I think this passage from Thomas McGuane’s short story “Weight Watchers” is the most romantic:
My mother comes from a Southern family, though she’s always lived in the North, and she has a tiny private income that has conditioned the dialogue since my childhood. Like a bazillion others of Southern origin, she is a remote beneficiary of some Atlanta pharmacist’s ingenuity, Coca-Cola---not a big remittance but enough to fuel Dad’s rage against entitlement. That money had much to do with his determination to keep my mother within sight of smokestacks all her life. As did his belief that everything outside the Rust Belt was fake. To him, the American Dream was a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound interior lineman from a bankrupt factory town with five-second forties, a long contract with the Colts, and a bonus for making the Pro Bowl.
Made your heart leap, didn’t it?
“Weight Watchers” is a love story and, as you can see, money figures.
McGuane is one of the most romantic writers I know. But I’m not sure that’s all his doing. My memories have a lot to do with it. There’s an association. Reading Thomas McGuane always reminds me of reading…Thomas McGuane.
Specifically Nobody’s Angel.
This was way back when. It’d just come out. I borrowed a copy from the bookstore in Boston where I was working to read on the train ride to visit my girlfriend’s parents in Philadelphia for Easter. Didn’t get much reading done. The train was crowded. We couldn’t find two seats together. The conductor came to our rescue. He thought we were young marrieds. We’d lied at the station and bought family tickets to save money. It was a planned crime. She wore a ring. The conductor showed us to an unoccupied sleeping car. We closed and locked the door.
Sexiest train ride of my life.
There’s probably a short story in that story. And I’d write it. If only I was as romantic a writer as Thomas McGuane.
My father believed that anything done for pleasure was escapism, except, of course, when it came to seducing his secretaries and most of my mother’s friends. He and my mother had been a glamorous couple early in their marriage: good looks, combined with assertive tastemaking, had put them on top in our shabby little city. Then I came along, and Mother thought I’d hung the moon. In Dad’s view, I put an end to the big romance. When I was a toddler, Dad caught Mom in the arms of our doctor on the screened back porch of the doctor’s fish camp. (Though there must have been some ambivalence about the event, because we continued to accept perch fillets from Dr. Hudson’s pond.) A few years later, when the high-school PE teacher caught the doctor atop his bride and shot him, Mother cried while Dad tilted his head to the side, elevated his eyebrows, and remarked, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
Like I said. Romantic.