Now I’m no prude. Really. I read Philip Roth. I love a bawdy joke. I watch (God forgive me) “American Horror Story.” But I have to draw the line somewhere. Most recently, it was Page 122 of Robert Olen Butler’s “They Whisper.”
I’ve owned this book for a long time. I’ve started it a couple times, but never got very far. The last time I started it was shortly after one of my kids was born. Dumb. A time when you aren’t getting much sleep and aren’t in the mood for anything else is not a time to read a stream-of-consciousness erotic novel.
Let’s start with the cover. I always found it intriguing, because it was so enigmatic, this photo of two nude bodies entwined in what must be some fairly acrobatic sexual position. After I had been reading the book for a week, my wife asked me to stop leaving the book around the house because she didn’t want our kids to see the cover. Too late: My 12-year-old son asked: “Dad, I know this is an arm, but what is the rest of this photo?” I came clean, I told him I couldn’t figure it out either. Take a look at the left, you’ll see what I mean.
Then I start reading. The novel is the musings of Ira, a middle-aged man who loves women. Boy does he love women. But in an all-consuming, sick way. Every woman he has ever had, dreamed about, heard speak but not met, seen the corpse of, whatever, if it’s female, it whispers to him and tells him what sex means to her. These long passages, when he intuits the woman’s voice — in italics to help readers realize this is Ira channeling the woman — are often laughable.
But then most of the book is. Ira — I kid you not — leaves prostitutes sexually fulfilled and, in high school is jealous of the toilet seats in the girls’ restroom because they see lots of bare high-school female butts. In one scene, the automated female voice of the grocery store scanner calls out the price of yogurts “69. 69. 69.” To him, it’s a woman, somewhere, begging for a little 69. Really?
Ira gets involved with a complete nut job named Phoebe who must be great in the sack because she’s so high maintenance there’s absolutely nothing obviously redeeming about her. How self absorbed is she? When she’s standing naked on a balcony and a man jumps off the building, passing her for a millionth of a second on his way to his death, she wonders what he thought of her body.
And there’s more ridiculousness. In the catacombs of Paris, Ira is drawn to a skull he feels is clearly a young woman’s, and he wonders whether she died a virgin and what a tragedy that would be and blah blah who the hell cares? See a damn therapist. (And as an aside: Ira’s unibrow is referenced over and over, which kept bringing to mind Burt from “Sesame Street” chasing tail all over the world. Not a good image.)
Still, I read on. Then I came to the point where Ira notes that Phobe puts her tongue out for his…you know…the same way she sticks it out when accepting the eucharist. That’s when I threw my hands up and the book out: There were 200 more pages of this and I just didn’t have it in me to read this man’s bizarre navel (there’s a more appropriate body part though, I sure) gazing.
Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories about Vietnam “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” and I’m willing to read him again, because when the writing wasn’t crazy with a capital K, it was beautiful.
Still, this goes in the Crap Bucket.