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  • Dildo Cay
  • Jonathan P. Eburne

"They're not flamingoes, Adrian thought; there wouldn't be flamingoes on Dildo Cay in September." It is through this keen eye for regional detail that we encounter the opening lines of Nelson Hayes's 1940 novel, Dildo Cay, a very real book whose title is so outlandish as to have provoked an incredulous review (as well as a single star rating) on The review, entitled "Elaborate hoax," reads:

I'm sorry to report that this book does not actually exist…. What's next? A bogus listing for "Goodnight Mooninite" to shill the Cartoon Network?

It is unfortunate that some people seem to think that Amazon is some sort of amusement park, like a literary Astroland, here for nothing more than their moronic brand of hedonism.

The book does, in fact, exist. Yet Dildo Cay—a salt-plantation melodrama set on a fictionalized island in the Turks and Caicos—warrants skepticism nonetheless. For starters, one questions the presumption that even the most sober war-era reader would leap to associate the titular islet with the tall Caribbean cactuses that populate it, rather than, say, with artificial phalluses. All the same, there is already something impressive about a novel whose very dust jacket can prompt an browser to doubt its existence.

Yet Dildo Cay is bad in ways that surpass its title. The product less of an unsteady hand than of a resoundingly tin ear, the novel's prose is so categorically graceless as to supersede camp and plunge straight into ontological confusion. Herein, I'd like to suggest, is the triumph of an exquisitely bad book such as Dildo Cay: it is so earnestly bad as to call its own existence into question. In many ways, of course, the novel parades the typically forgettable qualities of other undistinguished midcentury fiction: tawdry displays of local color, liberal deployments of racism and misogyny, textbook Oedipal conflicts, and the hypertrophic use of italics. But Dildo Cay boasts countless passages that far exceed these indistinctions:

'Father, I want to talk with you!' Adrian had been watching his father walk the dike unsteadily, and suddenly he had seen himself at the age of sixty walking the dike unsteadily, and on top of his restlessness it was too much for him.

'How strong do you think that pickle is?' his father asked, ignoring the tone of Adrian's voice.

If ever the family romance has so forcefully raised its pickle, I know few other novels so susceptible to accidental (?) allegory. We all walk the dike unsteadily.

It has become a minor ambition of mine to become a connoisseur, or at least a collector, of books as marvelously bad as Dildo Cay. Consider the Borgesian possibilities of such a library, especially given that one is spared from inventing its contents. The titles, the authors, and the prose are no less fictional for being real, historical artifacts.

Such books are not to be confused, however, with ephemera, whose material existence may once have been transitory, but which have instead been preserved against the ravages of time. Rather, the status of a bad book like Dildo Cay represents something akin to an eclipse: these are books whose material form raises the same doubts, the same questions about their existence, as their outlandish titles. My gradually increasingly library of such bad books now boasts titles such as Mary Wood-Allen's What a Young Woman Ought to Know (1898), Frances Neuman's The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), Virginia Elliott's post-Prohibition Quiet Drinking (1933), and Isaac Cronin's The International Squid Cookbook (1981). What's next? To quote the novel's closing line: "Keep your jib full…our course is for Dildo Cay."

Jonathan P. Eburne
Pennsylvania State University