The Best American Erotica
edited by Susie Bright
Published by Touchstone
271 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
So what's erotic? Black fishnet stockings... tightly-packed Levis... sleazy motel rooms, anonymous encounters... the forbidden, the exotic, the dangerous? Or is there more erotic charge in a sideways glance than all of the above put together?
Obviously, what turns you on is a highly subjective, individual matter. So sex guru Susie Bright (author of such works as How to Write a Dirty Story and Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World) had a formidable task ahead of her in compiling this collection. But since this is the ninth installment of the yearly series, readers must be (if you'll pardon the expression) lapping it up.
"There's something here for everyone," Bright writes in her introduction, "gay and straight, black and white, married or single, kinky or just curious." Though she sees this as a strength, it could also be counted as the book's greatest weakness. In trying to touch all bases, she practically guarantees that any given reader will find only one or two stories that really appeal to them.
Given all that, I was left to try to come up with some criteria for judging these pieces. Literary merit? That helps, if you keep in mind that this is a particular genre which, like murder mystery or science fiction, generally adheres to certain set conventions. Imagination? These stories range from the most stereotypical ("I opened the fur coat and let it slither onto the countertop behind me. All I had on underneath was a garter belt and black stockings") to the wildest and weirdest, as in Nalo Hopkinson's "Ganger (Ball Lightning)". This one features a disembodied blob of energy conjured from the electric charge between two rubber wet suits.
I finally decided that I'd judge these stories by a simple test: whether or not they turned me on. This could be literal or figurative i.e., laughter counted; so did "oh, what a gorgeous sentence," or "How does he know?" But I was also willing to score points for the unusual ("My body was a million Lite-Brites on at one time") or the just plain juicy (expressions like "giant flute," "split fruit" and "hotpatch").
"Talk About Sex: An Orientation" by Jamie Callan stands out for its wry humor (and if ever a subject needed a sense of humor, it's this one). As with most erotic stories, you get the gist of where things are going right from the first sentence: "All I'm going to do is talk." This strange verbal dominatrix then tells her (presumably male) client that "there are seventeen rules altogether." (Control, and who has it, is a major theme in nearly every piece.)
She then proceeds to set out strict limits on which fantasies she serves up on various days of the week. "On Fridays I might offer Catholic schoolgirls in plaid jumpers and knee socks who forgot to put on their underpants that day.... eating pork chops on a Friday, when Father O'Leary comes along and must find a way to teach them a lesson and punish them. This one takes place in 1967 and it's a favorite with fifty-three-year-old Jewish men from Westchester County."
Then there's "Joe" by Maggie Estep, a raw and raunchy story of unredeemed drug addicts: "She was wearing cut-off shorts and a tank top. She had enormous breasts. They seemed to have a life of their own. He reflected that if Denise were to travel, a separate passport would have to be issued for her tits."
Amusing as some of this is, it can also be a bit dull and depressing. In most cases it seems the women are required to have supernaturally huge breasts with nipples that stand up "like angry blueberries" (sic), and the men sport gargantuan members better suited to a horse. Eroticism isn't just the province of fantasy-figures with swollen, cartoonish proportions, but is a force of nature that belongs to all of us, even those unfortunate souls who can't fill out a jockstrap or a D-cup.
There are only a couple of stories here that truly avoid the pitfalls of the genre and generate some real heat. "Ropeburn" by Anne Tourney is an erotic classic, a strange tale of ghostly apparitions, dark secrets and menacing sexuality. I love the way Tourney describes female desire: "Her body quivered all along its length like a bow after the arrow leaves."
Her heroine, stirred by forces she can barely understand, goes looking for someone erotically dangerous: "I saw in his eyes the light I was looking for, a glint of dementia, the shimmer of stopped time." None of this is politically correct, of course (women aren't even supposed to think about this sort of thing, are they?) but it's damn fine writing, subtle yet stirring.
But my favorite in this generally disappointing collection is "The Lesson" by Debra Boxer. Who knew that opening oysters could be so erotic? For that is what this "lesson" is all about: "Even though I know it's coming, the juice pouring out startles me as it soaks my hands, my fingers now slick with evidence of this oyster's thalassic birth."
My, how this woman can write: "You have a gentle, yet confident way of instruction. If I were a nation, I'd follow you." Her way of conveying the building erotic tension between the couple is mesmerizing:
Everything we say is drenched in innuendo. I, too, am drenched. Aqueous. I want to shut up but I can't. I fear I'll start to caterwaul. God help me... I'm spinning in a heightened state of restive awareness. I suddenly see and feel everything at once. Drunk on my own precision. I am wholly tuned into you. Plugged into a socket of purely carnal thought. Prickly, pleasurable, yet painful, sensations caress my skin like a cat kneading my thighs with its claws.
This goes far to overcome the tedium of the weaker stories ("I came so hard that I was almost unconscious;" "He kept hitting my G-spot like he had a map" yeah, right). But rather than seek out other volumes compiled by Susie Bright, I'd sooner look for more work by the few erotic writers who really know how to do this.
They're rare, aren't they? This is just one of the many ways in which art reflects life. | February 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.