This Week's Reads

Brittany A. Daley, Bill Hicks, Lucius Shepard, and Graham Lord.

Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties

Edited by Brittany A. Daley et al. (Feral House, $24.95) Before the swinging '60s had really kicked in, when men were still horny and repressed, a group of lecherous, pot-smoking entrepreneurs and writers risked their hides to create low-quality sex books. Sin-A-Rama examines this era when adult-book publishers were routinely harassed, prosecuted, and tossed in the hoosegow. Today as tame as a PG-13 movie, these dirty books were careful to avoid all four-letter words and even a no-no like "penis." Writers instead used terms such as "loins" and elaborate metaphors to describe sex acts. Despite constant government persecution, adult-book publishers and the writers who churned out the books (including Harlan Ellison, Ed Wood, and Lawrence Block, all writing under pseudonyms) made a fortune serving a hungry market, which was desperate for even the most harmless, soft-core porn. Most of Sin-A-Rama is devoted to the tawdry, lurid, and very silly paperback cover art, which was undoubtedly more alluring than the stories inside (the books were written and published as quickly and cheaply as possible). The pulp covers include knockouts such as Any Man Will Do, which features a drawing of a naked woman with only the arm of a man's suit covering her (tag line: "She rode high, wide and wicked on a merry-go-round of sex,"), and Sex Life of a Cop, where an angry-looking chief in some retro underwear has been caught doing it in a car. The latter's caption reads, "This was no ordinary necking party they'd broken up. Before them stood their enraged boss—the Chief of Police—and some woman." Other titles include cheese masterpieces like Hippie Harlot, Martian Sexpot, Pit Stop Nymph, Passion Psycho, Outer Space Sex Orgy, and Station Wagon Wives. More kitschy fun than arousing, Sin-A-Rama provides an amusing peek into an underground pulp-publishing industry that has been almost entirely forgotten. Given today's era of cyberporn and X-rated video on demand, it seems almost quaint and even tasteful. ADAM BREGMAN Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines

By Bill Hicks (Soft Skull Press, $16.95) Bill Hicks wasn't the only comic who ever ranted, though he was the best ranter of all time—Charlie Parker to Dennis Miller's Kenny G. But what was unique about him was his blend of uncontrollable rage and universal love. "Save the children, think of the children!" he raved in one routine. "The children! Hey, what does that mean? They reach a certain age, they're off your fucking love list? Fuck your children, if that's how you feel, and fuck you with 'em. Either love people from all ages, or shut the fuck up!" He summed up the message of Christianity as "eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love," but Hicks had a strong streak of the hectoring preacher in his stage persona. In lieu of Christ's redemption, he offered up druggy mysticism ("take mushrooms, folks, squeegee your third fucking eye!") and incandescent fury at the hypocrisies of American life. (On the Gulf War: "I was for the war, I was just against the troops. I didn't like those young people. I was all for the carnage though, don't get me wrong, I am an American.") Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32, leaving behind a cult following and a handful of spoken-word albums, to which was added last year's excellent DVD, Bill Hicks Live (Rhykodisc, $19.95). This book, however, is an unworthy extension of Hicks' slender legacy. Consisting mostly of transcriptions of his routines, with a few letters, sketches for never- realized projects, and some forgettable articles written about him when he was alive (and one really good one by The New Yorker's John Lahr, who supplies a foreword), it seems to have been assembled in about 20 minutes without the most basic of editing (spell check, anyone?). Worse, it exposes Hicks' tendency—like that of Lenny Bruce—to overdose on the same righteousness that fueled his best moments onstage. His stabs at scriptwriting, excerpted here, are pompous and unfunny; his letters show him to be (big surprise) painfully insecure and defensive. Forget Bill Hicks the writer. Get Bill Hicks Live and remember him as the obscene genius he was onstage. DAVID STOESZ A Handbook of American Prayer

By Lucius Shepard (Four Walls, $22) It may appear unnecessary to critique celebrity and the idolatry of religion 25 years after Monty Python pithily covered the topic in Life of Brian. (Brian: "You've all got to work it out for yourselves!" Crowd: "Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!") Nonetheless, Vancouver, Wash., author Lucius Shepard tackles the subject in his latest novel, (his 15th book in 20 years), and does so skillfully and articulately. Shepard, much of whose prior work was in science fiction (e.g., The Jaguar Hunter), here tells the contemporary story of ex-con Wardlin Stuart, who becomes famous by developing "prayerstyle," a form of secular prayer that proves to be remarkably effective at achieving small, concrete goals. One might briefly pause at the idea of Stuart, a college dropout, flinging around words such as "threnody" or "éminence grise," but Shepard's writing is so gorgeously precise—think David Foster Wallace without the unabridged dictionary—that anything is forgivable. While on the phone with his New York editor, Stuart hears "sirens in her background, as if her thoughts had declared an emergency." Later he notices a "pride of gang-bangers" and remarks on a pair of "crepe-throated" old women. The story, too, is compelling. The author tears through American culture's worship of celebrity like so much wet newspaper and recasts organized religion as a cult of personality, owing more to personal charisma than faith. The "Handbook of American Prayer" that Stuart writes in jail becomes a best seller, leading to public confrontations with the religious establishment (on Larry King Live, no less) and spawning a rabid cult of "Wardlinites." This satiric territory has been mined before, but Shepard's acute writing elevates the novel above its peers. PATRICK ENRIGHT Niv: The Authorized Biography of David Niven

By Graham Lord (Thomas Dunne, $24.95) A copy-and-paste hack job masquerading as a biography, Graham Lord's Niv revels in smutty, lifelessly rendered anecdotes about the late English actor David Niven (1910–1983). There's an earlier, better Niven bio on the shelves: Sheridan Morley's 1985 The Other Side of the Moon. The star in question also penned a pair of successful memoirs, The Moon's a Balloon (1971) and Bring on the Empty Horses (1975). Lord quotes incessantly from these three books; without them, he would not have one of his own. In addition to cribbing passages from other writers, Lord displays a curious interest in the size of Niven's phallus. I lost track of how many penis references Lord inserts throughout Niv. Lord follows a sensitively wrought two-page essay on the 1946 death of Niven's first wife with, "He had an incredible, peculiar way of grieving for her . . . he had an erection all the time . . . and it became quite difficult to walk around." Why does Lord think it's essential for us to know this? His tone reeks of the worshipful vulgarity that I associate with Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. "Beneath Niv's smooth facade," Lord writes, "there was still a deep well of insecurity that was deepened by the hiccup in his career." In spite of Lord's unquestioning reverence for Niven, he paints the actor as a dilettantish control freak who wouldn't allow his second wife, the Swedish model Hjördis Tersmeden, to have a profession once they'd tied the knot. She disintegrated into an aimless, drunken boor, and Lord (all too conveniently) tries to portray the frustrated wife as a villain. What about Niven's actual career and work as an actor? Though he offers little insight on the subject, Lord's clumsy, prurient book spurs a faint eagerness to re-watch a couple of Niven classics: his Oscar-winning turn in 1958's Separate Tables and the 1938 antiwar film The Dawn Patrol. N.P. THOMPSON

 
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