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All American: Santa Cruz's Susie Bright is editor of 'Best American Erotica 2005.'

Hard Times

Two new erotic anthologies find edgy sex in America's bad news

By Hannah Strom-Martin

For a moment, it looked like 2005 might not be able to get it up. A.S Byatt once wrote that "desire lies on the other side of repugnance" and this year's bumper crop of eroticists seem to have that concept down in spades. Susie Bright's Best American Erotica 2005 (Touchstone; $14 paper; 240 pages) and Maxim Jakubowski's Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica Vol. 4 (Carroll & Graf; $12.95 paper; 544 pages) are new anthologies that showcase some decidedly unsexy sex, their characters getting it on against a background of racism, broken dreams, terminal illness and addiction--and that's just the first 20 pages.

For example, Sharon Wachsler's story "To the Marrow" features a character declaring, "They sliced off my breasts like two bloody custards."

Or how about this from Alicia Gifford's short fiction, "Surviving Darwin"? "After Curtis' lawyer serves Susan's divorce papers, she takes Alex to a neighbor's house. She fills her car with gasoline and then drives into their snug weather-stripped garage. She closes the door and drinks a pint of vodka with the motor running; a photo of Curtis, Alex and her laughing in front of a Christmas tree on the dash. When Curtis phones to tell me of her suicide, I'm shocked, but then it occurs to me that he won't have to pay her alimony or divide their assets--we'll have it all. And then it hits me that Alex will be with Curtis 24/7 now. Artie is right--I'm not the maternal type. I can't help wishing she'd taken Alex with her."

These gems, both collected in Bright, seem passages more worthy of gallows novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) than authors purporting to turn us on. Of course, anyone familiar with Susie Bright knows to expect the unexpected. This is, after all, the woman who gave us an erotic story starring Dan Quayle. In her yearly Best American Erotica series, Bright has never flinched from displaying our darker urges or showcasing stories that examine the sociopolitical influences that shape the sexual experience (an uncanny knack that has led many to christen her "America's Leading Sex Goddess"). Yet even so, this year's selections start off like a series of blows--not the good kind--introduced by their illustrious editor's instructions to make reading erotica part of every date. Given the titillating climate of fear and loathing that has come to cloud the American landscape in the past four years, I was surprised to find no mention of Iraq in the introduction--for it would certainly explain some of the angst, death and despair which follows.

Mary Gaitskill's "The Ugly Cock Dance" stars a disappointed older couple whose sagging bodies do little more for the reader than they do for the characters. Martha Garvey's "Bottle" chronicles a young woman's attempts to cope with the scars left by her now deceased alcoholic father. And the characters in Bill Noble's searing "Salt" face arson, eviction, simmering prejudice and a threatened shark attack. It certainly says something about the national libido when one of the few presumably "happy" stories in the anthology takes place during the Salem witch trials.

However, Bright has really put the "literary" in literary erotica, and Lisa Montanarelli's bubbly story "Loved It and Set It Free" is an angstless ribald about two girls and a memorable sex toy--and a welcome addition to anyone's heart-shaped box. Simon Sheppard's "After the Beep" is raunchy and right-on, a homoerotic home run that jump-started this straight shooter, and as usual, Bright summons the most dazzling sensualists in the business, the collection playing to every taste and orientation. The quality of the writing in The Best American Erotica 2005 is never in question ("Sex," says Bill Noble's "Salt"-y heroine, "was like burning down around myself." Hell, yeah!)--and even in the pitch-black seediness of a tale like Lana Gail Taylor's "Genuflection," the characters seem to reach for sex as for benediction.

As for Jakubowski's epic Vol. 4 collection, his penchant for including genre erotica--commendable any other year--suffers from moody vampires brooding over whether or not to kill a new lover in the story "Amsterdam" (how did writer Simon Sheppard go from "Beep" to brrr?) and the truly creepy futurescape "Everything But the Smell of Lilies," by M. Christian in which an ambulance driver makes love to a "corpse for hire" which he literally scrapes off the street. After opening with the tattoo-a-licious "Wings" by Amanda A. Gannon, about a business woman who stages a punk-rock revolution of the soul, Vol. 4 soon starts to slide into depression--either in the subject matter (heroin and necrophilia and objectification, oh my!) or some truly subpar offerings (did we really need two badly conceptualized New Orleans ghost-fuck stories in the first 120 pages?). And yet, while Jabukowski is often about the shock or the concept or the easy, get-you-there fantasy, it is his anthology that must take the credit for showing this year's enthusiasts how erotica can be truthful, brutal and delicious at the same time.

More than any story in Best New Erotica, Mike Kimera's epic entry, "American Holidays," stands as a testament to how erotica can measure the pulse of humanity. His story is neither the most poetic, nor the most chic, but its plain language and thorough dissection of character in the examination of two husbands, two wives and one pent-up executive speaks to something deeply American at the heart of all of us in a time when the definition of "American" has never been more scrutinized. Here we have the twisty, complicated interplay of two very different couples, both threatening to break apart under the pressure of their own personal sexual ideologies. As they fight against societal roles (the Slut, Mr. Sensitive, the Player, the Sub) they are everything our TV-fixated culture claims to examine. Yet, unlike the plastic sensuality of The Bachelorette, the torrid affairs in "American Holidays" serve to reveal character, not confirm stereotype. And the sex--one orgiastic, sprawling, emotionally connected marathon per character--is exactly the kind of tense "should-I-touch-myself-or-keep-reading?" prose that should be expected of anyone ballsy enough to anthologize under the heading of "mammoth." Jabukowski may never possess Susie Bright's exquisite savvy, but by finding "American Holidays," he's come close.

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From the February 9-16, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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