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The Boston Phoenix Limp Turn-Ons

By Nicholas Patterson

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

NERVE: LITERATE SMUT, Edited by Genevieve Field and Rufus Griscom. Broadway Books, 272 pages, $15.

Reading Nerve, I could almost hear the voice of Mike Myers as Linda Richmond, the hostess of Saturday Night Live's "Coffee Talk," saying, "Nerve is neither literate nor smut: discuss." In fact, that assessment is about half right. Although a number of the stories and essays in this collection culled from the Web sex magazine Nerve.com are literate, very little is actually smut or obscene writing. It's too intellectual to be smutty or arousing.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the editors' intention. In their introduction, Genevieve Field and Rufus Griscom tell us that Nerve is "not a magazine of porn or erotica -- genres primarily dedicated to producing arousal -- nor another glossy proffering tips on sex and romance, but rather a forthright magazine about sex." They argue that their magazine is "more graphic, forthright, and topical than 'erotica,' but less blockheadedly masculine than 'pornography.' . . . It's about sexual literature, art, and politics as well as about getting off -- and we realize that these interests sometimes conflict." In other words, it's like a Woody Allen movie: everybody talks about sex, but you never see anyone actually getting it on.

Field and Griscom have recruited a bevy of famous/controversial writers and artists for this investigation of modern sexuality. The book is broken into seven thematic sections: Shame, Fringes, Taboo, Habits, Debauchery, Reportage, and Love Stories. The fiction, essays, and photographs that make up these sections run the gamut from the good to the bad to the bizarre.

Certainly the book delivers some well-written and thought-provoking work. Anyone who has ever seen ads for the Better Sex Video Series in the Atlantic Monthly or the New York Times Book Review will find Ruth Shalit's "Porno for Yuppies: The Better Sex Video Charade" illuminating. It turns out that the "real-life couples" in these "instruction" videos are actually real-life porn stars. Shalit explains that this ruse is an attempt by the video makers to defuse "the volatile class politics of pornography -- a genre long dismissed among the bourgeois as formulaic and debased" and tap into the yuppie market. Articles on getting over being ashamed of facial scars by Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face), being a virgin at 28 by Debra Boxer, dating women when in prison by Evans D. Hopkins, working in a peep show by Cammie Toloui (with accompanying photographs), and the sex lives of Bonobo apes by Meredith F. Small similarly provide intelligent insight into a diverse array of sex lives and imaginations.

Another Nerve high point is a tender love story excerpted from Robert Olen Butler's The Deep Green Sea. An initial sexual encounter between an American Vietnam vet and a young Vietnamese woman in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City is told from the perspectives of both participants. As the two grow physically closer, we learn how their psychologies have led them to each other. And stories and novel excerpts from Poppy Z. Brite, Thom Jones, and Dale Peck take us on a roller-coaster ride from a world where Lennon and McCartney are lovers to a young boy's humiliation (first by the school bully and then by a lecherous movie projectionist) to a memorial for an anonymous lover.

Then there are the not-so-high points. Gloria Mitchell's "Horse Lust and the Would-Be Equestrienne" provides an all-too-familiar look at why some girls like horses. Ben Neihart's "The #1 Song in the Country," about a rock star who gets musical inspiration through water sports, is sophomoric without the satisfying sophomoric laughs. And Amanda Griscom's brief "Mother of Bodily Invention: Scenes from a Fetish Club" piques interest but stops short of providing insight. Nerve also offers up some unintentionally odd moments, like a piece from former surgeon general M. Joycelyn Elder (written with the Reverend Dr. Barbara Kilgore) extolling the spiritual virtues of masturbation. "Far from evil, masturbation just may render heavenly contentment in those who dare," they conclude. In other words, it's not just couples who can feel the earth move.

Nerve is like a food magazine that tells you a lot about cooking and presentation but doesn't make you hungry. The fiction, essays, and interviews are intellectually but not sexually stimulating -- in that regard, for better or worse, crusty sexual warriors like Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller manage to be as explicit as they are thoughtful. The most sexually evocative aspect of this compendium is its collection of photographs by the likes of Richard Kern, Peter J. Gorman, Fabrizio Rainone, and Taryn Simon. But Nerve's already intriguing investigation of sex would benefit by having more material for what Russ Meyer would call the one-armed reader.

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