Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Ms. Write

By Jessica Berthold

JULY 5, 1999:  Carolyn Banks isn't easy to classify. She's written five books in a series of comic mysteries set in the equestrian world, four suspense novels, a book of erotica called Tart Tales, and the recently reissued Mr. Right: A Smartass Parafeminist Psychoerotic Thriller (Second Chance Press, $25 hard), just to name a few. Banks crosses genres both across and within works, and while many would see this as a sign of versatility, she doesn't recommend it: "My advice to new writers is: Find a channel and stick with it. Otherwise, you won't build a reliable audience," Banks says, then laughs. "Personally, though, I can't do it."

Banks is best known for her horse-mystery series centered around a married, horse-owning couple who falls time and again into a dark and bizarre underbelly of shady stables and twisted trainers. There's more than a bit of Banks' own life in these novels. She's been riding since she was 12, and today, at 58, keeps two horses in a rented pasture near her home in Bastrop. While she sees the audience for these novels as being mainly other "horse people," she tries to keep the novels accessible enough for the average reader, which she accomplishes by incorporating the only element which can truly be said to bind together all of Banks' writing: humor. "My horse novels center around the sport of dressage, which is this very concentrated, nit-picky form of competition," Banks says. "There's a weird language to it; people say things like, 'He gave me his back today.' It's so bizarre and yet serious, it's begging to be made fun of."

Humor is also the engine which drives Banks' latest -- and, paradoxically, earliest -- work, Mr. Right, originally published in 1979 and recently re-released. The main character, Lida, is a wise-cracking, obscenity-spewing libertine burned out on the one-night stands which passed as sexual liberation in the Seventies. While in the hospital recovering from a tubal ligation, Lida falls for a self-exiled erotic suspense novelist she's never met after reading one of his novels. The novelist, who writes under three different names and stimulates his creativity by masturbating to rape/murder fantasies, may or may not be a psychopathic killer bent on murdering Lida after she finagles a meeting between them. This is classic, overblown horror-movie fare -- in a word, it's camp. Banks knows it; her original editor, who subtitled the novel "A Smartass Parafeminist Psychoerotic Thriller," knew it; and her husband Davis McAuley, who designed the brightly colored, comically mannerist cover of a naked man standing domineeringly over a bored-faced woman in bed, knows it too. The problem is that, until now, her readers haven't known it. "Writing about sex is tricky, because it's all people see," says Banks. "I think the book is funny, but no one talks about that. This time around, I hope people will laugh more."

photograph by Greg Selig

It makes sense to wager that, 20-plus years after the sexual revolution, readers would be inured to the sex scenes in the novel which, the first time around, prompted one printer to refuse to set Mr. Right in type. But in the age of AIDS and fear-inspired abstinence, that's just not so, says Banks. "People are focused on the preachy element now; they look at characters as role models. I've gotten comments on how the use of condoms isn't explicit enough. When Tart Tales came out [in 1993], one reviewer criticized it because there were no lesbian stories. There's someone out there to object to everything now."

Given that the book was written, in part, to point out the drawbacks of the sexual revolution, and given the altered sexual environment into which the novel has been re-introduced, one might expect that the author, or publisher, was tempted to update the story for the Nineties. The story, and even the type, remain exactly as they were in 1979, however, and Banks is glad of it. "I still really like it. There's only one remark I'd change, and that's only because I think it's kind of silly now." Martin Shepard, co-publisher of Second Chance Press, thinks the book is just as timely now as it was in the Seventies: "A character like Lida is still inspiring and refreshing. For all the Betty Friedans, for all the women who are bold, there are just as many women with inhibitions."

What of the subtitle, then? Isn't "parafeminist" somewhat of a dated term? "I really don't know," says Banks. "If you asked me to define the word, I couldn't. The subtitle was actually suggested during an editorial meeting in 1979. It just sounded right; it captures the idea of a woman trapped by her sexuality." Shepard also says he has "no idea" what parafeminism means. When I liken it to the term "paramilitary," whose members function as a military but operate outside officialdom, he agrees this is the spirit of the term as it exists in Mr. Right. "Certainly, Lida is a unique woman. She's a feminist, but she's outside the usual circles. She's no card-carrying member of any tribe."

Lida's unique brand of feminism has posed somewhat of a threat to male readers in the past, according to Banks. In the opening scene, for example, Lida belittles a man for putting a condom on wrong. "A lot of men didn't laugh at the opening scene," Banks writes in her introduction. "A lot of men want to be seen as conquistadors." Banks worries a little that men might still be scared off by that opening scene, and this has prompted her to say she believes sex scenes should always be placed deep within a book. "People think, if this is the first scene, what's the rest going to be like?" she says. Nonetheless, she didn't change the opening the second time around, for the same reason she writes books which dance across different genres: She likes it that way. "If I like it, I can't change it," Banks says. "I've given up trying to get a wider audience. I write what I think is good."

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