I hope I'm not the only writer whose love for literature commenced with books that had sex scenes in them. I like to think many happened upon Portnoy's Complaint (1969) or The Fear of Flying (1973), or, in my case, Chester Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), paged through what at first seemed dull dialogue and description to get to the dirty parts. Later on, I spent time reading the dialogue and description and started to think this was something I might be able to do.
But somewhere along the way, books like the above titles seemed to grow scarce. The HIV/AIDS epidemic made many of my generation circumspect about sex in general and how it should be depicted upon the page. I'm not the only writer who has asked, "Would it be irresponsible to have two characters have sex without protection? Wouldn't it be simpler to cut that scene?"
While our international counterparts revel in sex, U.S. writers appear squeamish or just not good at it. As well, the Workshop has had some impact on fiction that portrayed its characters' sex lives. No one wanted to be remembered for turning in a story with a sex scene ruined by clichés or Penthouse Forum-like drivel. Could it also be that even in the twenty-first century, we're still struggling with the Puritan ethos of this nation regarding this most human of subjects?
That's why this special section of ABR bore so much promise. I was looking forward to seeing some writers to shelve next to Jong, Roth, and Himes. The novels—Zach Mucha's Heavyweight Champion of Nothing (2013) and T. Geronimo Johnson's Hold It 'Til It Hurts (2012)—demonstrate decidedly different approaches to dealing with sex. And while these two books may not point to a shift in mood among our novelists, they at least promise that writers-in-the-making might have scenes to furiously page toward.
In his introduction to Heavyweight Champion of Nothing, Zach Mucha writes: "This book is about people who know they won't leave a mark on the world and can feel their little bit of comfort and protection being threatened." This almost clinical examination (Mucha is a social worker as well as a novelist) of characters can be seen also in Mucha's depiction of sex. In this novel, nothing titillates or excites. Sex is rendered in the same manner as other actions: beer-drinking, furniture-moving and scheming for better things. The setting is populated with "raggedy prostitutes" and housewives who deliberately tantalize the movers who make up the central cast of characters. Of the few relationships between male and female characters in the novel, the most prominently sexual one exists between the unnamed narrator and his neighbor, Dolly. The narrator always has Dolly's body, if not her soul, and one wonders whether she knows how to give that away. Never is their coitus described as pleasurable or enduring; it is over briefly, and in a surprising and excellent touch by Mucha, always punctuated by Dolly's requests for "loans."
The novel's slow-developing plot concerns movers conspiring with a designer to fence stolen goods. The narrator's own complicity in the thefts and eventual arrest (conspicuously after spending the night with Dolly) along with his search for some sense of self outside of his job, ultimately leads him to an actual escape, from decent pay and reasonable conditions in Chicago to subhuman treatment as an illegal sublet builder in Queens. Intriguingly, Mucha does not allow his character to ever even "hook up" during this latter third of the novel: "No woman would come near me, though—I think I was trying too hard. When you want to get laid, you might as well write 'I Want Pussy' on your forehead and have it misspelled."
A third relationship flickers on the perimeter of...