Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Eros, Apes, and Troubled Ireland

By edited by Leonard Gill

Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings
Edited by Reginald Martin
St. Martin's Press, 398 pp., $25.95

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Reginald Martin, a professor of English at the University of Memphis, is one of Memphis' most erudite citizens and one of the literary world's most erotic-minded. And, while he is anything but a separatist, he has a highly developed sense of racial consciousness as an African American. All of these attributes together equip him to be what, in several publications and other media incarnations, he has become: the Hugh Hefner of the 'hood (including those portions of it that are decidedly upscale).

Understand: There is no air-brush in Martin's arsenal, and both style and nuance are far more full-bodied in him than in the erstwhile Playboy Philosopher. Even so, the analogy to Hefner (rather than to such other chroniclers of human sexuality as Kinsey and Masters & Johnson) holds: Reggie Martin is, above all, a celebrator of the erotic, of that force which he describes as "more being than urge" in his newest edited anthology, Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings.

In culling his selections -- which range from haikus to fictions to memoirs to sui generis specimens -- Martin amasses a great deal of evidence for a thesis which he elaborates this way: "Know that the erotic pre-exists and post-exists all those within the powers of its boundary. Thus, the erotic would exist without any humans under its sway to act out its impulses [It] both waits to be accessed and accesses without permission." And, as in Martin's previous books -- which include a definitive text on novelist Ishmael Reed and the anthology Erotique Noire -- the current work illumines corners that are both universally human (even when most outré) and distinctively black.

Among the highlights: a poem by one Oktavi about "Phone sex girls/ Who whisper/ Fiber optic oohs and ayahs"; Tim Seibles' free-verse recollection of a man able to orally service himself; Kalammu Ya Salaam's essay on the sexuality of Bessie Smith and the other ladies who sang the blues; a hard-core menage-a-trois fantasy by Playthell Benjamin. Etc., etc., etc. Mr. Heinz would have been in awe: There's a lot more than 57 varieties here.

"Now it is clear that we can never go back to where we should have never been," Martin says of those historical layers of repression/oppression which he is having such a good time peeling off. You learn something in Black Eros, but that's the least of it; what you mainly do is enjoy. -- Jackson Baker

Great Apes
By Will Self
Grove Press, 404 pp., $24

IF YOU KNOW THE WORK OF BRITISH satirist Will Self, you know from his short-story collection Grey Area that Simon Dykes is a painter living in present-day London and that Dr. Zack Busner is an Oliver Sacks/R.D. Laing stand-in first introduced to readers in The Quantity Theory of Insanity. In Self's major new novel, Great Apes, both are back, only Dykes, Busner, and the rest of the crew in this delirious piece of misanthropy are chimpanzees and all humanity is recast as chimpunity.

Things may be arse-backward here -- chimps acting human, humans acting subchimp -- but, as Self presents them, things aren't necessarily wrong-side up, just underscored a bit for Swiftian emphasis. To lengths too cruel, you have the right to ask? Yes, but only if you've never suffered through an art opening, sought understanding from a psychiatrist, or crossed paths with a sex-driven knuckle-walker.

If the savagery in Great Apes isn't a problem, then, it must be the length, which, at 400 pages, is room enough for the author to exercise his renowned clevernesses with the English language, but more than enough room for a less than sizeable plot. Subplots that promise much fall with disappointing regularity. Major characters are left dangling or disappear altogether. And what's meant to be the novel's climactic meeting between Dykes and his purported son -- a scene to put his delusions of being in actuality human to a final test and rest -- turns out to be, in the space of a single paragraph, the very definition of anticlimax. The follow-up scene, in which Dykes and Busner gentlemanly share a satisfying Scotch, by contrast, carries greater emotional weight.

So what's there to recommend in Great Apes? The author's deft handling of his characters' actions, for one: to most appearances, strictly human actions (such as steering a car) comically and convincingly enacted by chimpanzees (steering with only one foot on the wheel). Secondly, Self's inventiveness with dialogue in a world where signing (except for the occasional grunt, groan, or shriek) must work in place of the spoken word. And thirdly, Self's paralleling of the ape world and our own. When it comes to arse-kissing and the arse being kissed, Great Apes reminds us, parallel behaviors between man and beast can be said at last to meet. -- Leonard Gill

Down by the River
By Edna O'Brien
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 265 pp., $23

EDNA O'BRIEN'S NEW NOVEL, Down by the River, is an evocative and powerful story of a bewildered 14-year-old girl caught in the vortex of pro-life and pro-choice forces in her native Ireland. Mary MacNamara is the girl, and those forces make her into a national symbol even as her private tragedy is lost.

The only child of a hard-drinking rancher and an ineffective mother, Mary was a victim of her father's sexual advances long before she managed to escape to a Catholic boarding school. But upon her mother's death, the father asks that she return home, and Mary, though cognizant of his motives, finds it impossible to refuse. Once the two are left alone, the abuse continues until the girl finds herself pregnant and then object of both the virulent pro-lifers and their opponents.

If those pro-choice advocates lose sight of Mary, O'Brien shows the fanatical anti-abortionists in Mary's community to be just as blind. While they sit about talking of baby names and knitting garments, Mary contemplates suicide, so deep is her shame, depression, and, to the consternation of everyone, increasing passivity. However, when Roisin, the worst of the pro-lifers, admonishes Mary that "it's not your child ... the way your tonsils are yours or your mane of hair," the girl's quiet response has the force of "a beautiful explosion that seemed to float out of her mouth and blacken the face that was only inches away."

The dark and disturbing nature of Down by the River should not dissuade readers. This is a remarkable book of haunting prose about a remarkable girl, one whose childhood you'll wish were recoverable. -- Lisa C. Hickman

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