Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Bull Macho Fiction Bullshit

When Charles Mingus wrote of his life in Beneath the Underdog—a flawed, bizarre book—he did not shy away from his sex life, most notably the fucking of many, many Mexican prostitutes in one evening, none of which satisfied him. It is one of the moments that best exemplifies why memoirs should always be read with many grains of salt. Why? Because they are almost always bullshit and any reader with a brain ought to know this. (I still cannot understand why people were fooled by James Frey.) There’s some truth, sure, but when it comes to men writing about sex, you can almost always spot the embellishments.

When Gore Vidal reviewed Henry Miller’s book Sexus, he raised (pardon the pun) a fair question: does the protagonist, a loose stand-in for Miller, ever fail to get an erection? Miller writes of himself—sorry, his protagonist—as being the ultimate lover, a man women cannot resist not only for his brain but also for his cock, which, as Gore pointed out, never fails to rise to the occasion and please the lucky ladies again and again and again.

Okay, maybe Vidal was jealous. Maybe Miller’s dirty book(s) is an example of Ali’s famous quote: it ain’t bragging if it’s true. Unless we interview Miller’s former lovers, we’ll never know, and that is not a prospect I’d relish. There’s been enough attention paid to Miller’s prowess—real or imagined—including here. So let’s move on.

I’m reading Pedro JuanGutiérrez, as I said before. I’ve read his Dirty Havana Trilogy, which is good not only for the sex (of which, there is lots) but also to get a picture of the horror that was Havana in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its main source of economic support. Seven years later, I’m getting around to reading another of his books, Tropical Animal.

Where Dirty Havana Trilogy felt fresh and exciting, Tropical Animal is somewhat stalled in the gratifying revelry of the self that Miller and, while we’re at it, Bukwoski, were guilty of on occasion. (Then again, name a writer, or any artist, not guilty of this?)

There seems to be a significant difference in the work of Bukowski and the work of Miller and, in Tropical Animal, Gutiérrez. With Buk, I never feel like his semi-autobiographical books are meant to glorify himself over his vision. Buk loved uncluttered sentences and favored the gritty realism that has been emulated all too goddamn often. Miller—infinitely more solipsistic—wrote to celebrate himself and his ideas. Again, nothing wrong with that. I mean, read Whitman’s famous poem on the subject and you’ll see that this can be a literary style par excellence. There’s room enough for everything in art, if you ask me.

But, here’s the thing: Bukowski wrote about the low life because he lived it and it fascinated him. He felt that he was representing an underrepresented part of society, one whose aspirations and failures were as tragic and worthy of note as any king's. He saw himself as continuing in a tradition of the writers he most admired, Céline and Fante highest among them. He was arrogant, sure, but his arrogance was based on the idea that anyone could write better than him if they only shut up and wrote, which, he noted, few were driven enough to do.

With Miller, I always felt as though he saw himself as inherently superior to damn near everything. Bukowski certainly comes across as an egoist, but never on the level of Miller. Bukowski didn’t have a problem writing about his bedroom failures.

Enter Pedro Juan. In the Dirty Havana Trilogy, he mentioned, very briefly, Bukowski. This is noteworthy to the reader who must have seen a parallel before reaching that page. Where Buk had whiskey and beer, Pedro Juan has rum. And like Buk, Pedro Juan likes his women, most of which are prostitutes, and writes direct, unencumbered sentences. It seemed inevitable that Pedro Juan, a relative newcomer to the English speaking world, would be dubbed the Bukowski of Cuba by the same American critics who would be happy to think of Cabrera Infante as the Joyce of Cuba.

Even considering the aspects mentioned above, the correlations between Buk and Pedro Juan are slim. If anyone writes about the low life, are they always going to be compared to Bukowski (or, in England, Jeffrey Bernard)? Perhaps, and maybe there are valid reasons (think Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence), but there are also differences. Where they begin is in Dirty Havana Trilogy, where the self-reflective stories, while full of drinking and fucking, speak toward larger social and political concerns. The extreme poverty of Pedro Juan’s world is linked back to the end of a decades long struggle between two super powers that left much of the rest of the world in the dust. Bukowski’s books, while speaking to larger socio-political truths, are less portraits of political fallout than the Cuban variety. But this is also arguable—perhaps the reason academics were able to tolerate Pedro Juan’s fuck tales over Bukowski’s is due to their “exotic” foreign roots.

But let’s get back to Tropical Animal. Maybe I need to go back and reread Dirty Havana Trilogy, but I don’t remember any sex scenes where women scream about what a stud the hero is. Tropical Animal, on the other hand, makes mention of Pedro Juan’s ability a few times, as Miller’s Sexus did through the whole damn book. There is something annoying about this. I have no problem with sex scenes in books, movies, hell, anywhere, but I never like seeing the Dean Koontz version of sex, where the 3rd person narrator speaks (after spending pages on unspeakable gore) of how two lover became one, or the Henry Miller version where women are begging for more and ready to erect a statue to the great literary stud. Both seem to be hiding something, which hints at an alarming falsity, especially in realist books such as Pedro Juan’s.

There is this problem in macho fiction, though it is not an easy one to assail. In the end, I tend to forgive the self-mythologizing male lover because it’s part and parcel of the genre. But it’s bringing my enjoyment of Tropical Animal down a peg or two. I’m waiting for Pedro Juan to have a Bukowski-like failure to obtain an erection. It might help me believe the rest of his bullshit.