There’s no doubt Rusty Barnes’ short-short story collection, Breaking It Down, belongs in the literary section of the bookstore. It has all the qualities we expect in literary fiction: fresh, often stunning images, an unflinching look at the truth of human character, spare and elegant prose. Add to that the author’s mastery of the short-short or flash form and his ability to evoke a lifetime of yearning or regret in a few brief pages and it’s no wonder it got rave blurbs from the likes of Ploughshares’ DeWitt Henry and Edward Falco. But before you’re thinking my review will be labeled as an all “writing” entry, I have to let you know there’s plenty of sex in Breaking It Down—after all, Steve Almond liked it, too.
Don’t go moving the book to the erotica section quite yet! Let me assure you I’m talking about literary sex. Yes, I suppose it’s time for me to lay my definitions out on the table, bare naked, for all to see. There’s been a long, sometimes heated, debate about the differences between porn, erotica and the serious treatment of sexuality that might even get you on a college syllabus, like D.H. Lawrence. Many claim it’s all in the eye of the beholder—what I like is literary, what you like is erotica, what a person neither of us like likes is porn. However, I believe there is a somewhat more objective way to analyze the difference.
Porn is bodies having sex, no complications, no questions asked, no real plot necessary. The intent is to arouse with descriptions or photographs of sex acts and the copious use of “obscene” words. This is reptile brain stuff, not that it can’t be highly effective and often enjoyable when the mood is right.
Erotica adds brains and hearts to the bodies. Its pages are populated by complex human beings, with dreams, desires and even disappointments in their lives. These people need reasons to have sex and they usually need a specific reason to have sex with the partner or partners of the moment. Often assumed to be aimed at women, erotica offers plot, character, motivation, poetic language and even humor. However, for the most part it does aim to arouse the libido as well as the mind. (That’s what I try to do in my work anyway).
A literary sex scene adds one more layer--a higher artistic purpose. It can arouse, but it doesn’t have to, the only “must” is that it serve to reveal character. Therefore here’s where you find an honest and often darkly complex view of human sexuality. Now we’re back to Breaking It Down. Barnes’ stories are often brutally honest. Sex has consequences, it’s an urge that ruins lives. It can also be a way for inarticulate characters to assert some power or seek a fragile moment of connection in a lonely life. Adultery, spouse-swapping, disappointed housewives taking out their frustration in the arms of visiting handymen--Barnes pierces through the clichés to touch the tender, wounded heart of erotic desire. Frankly, I found it all wonderfully refreshing. I enjoyed every one of the eighteen stories, but I’ll talk about a few favorites (yes, they have more sex) to illustrate my “definition.”
“What Needs to Be Done,” the first story in the collection, grabbed me right away with its sensual, resonant images--green beans in a silver bowl, tobacco juice spattered over the mums. Many of Barnes’ stories are clearly set in Appalachia and in this case issues of class are highlighted with a city-girl narrator, Derry, who is trapped in a disappointing marriage to an alcoholic country boy. One of the ways she endures is to have literal rolls in the hay with her nineteen-year-old brother-in-law. This passage is one of my favorites in the book:
“Purl had laid the blanket out already, wisps of hay stuck to his hairless chest. As I loosened his jeans, it wagged at me like a finger, an accusation I could never answer to anyone’s satisfaction but my own.”
An erection as a finger of blame—it’s funny, it’s indelibly memorable and it’s a classic example of sex-reveals-character. Plus, literature changes the way you look at the world and truth be told, I will probably never look at hard-ons in the same way again.
“Certitude” shows us a family in turmoil. A father facing his own mid-life crisis throws his teenage daughter out of the house for smoking marijuana and hanging out with boys. The mother, Mathilde, understands that the violence of his reaction is a reflection of his own desires and thus her reason for seducing her husband on the sofa in the TV room is very different from Derry’s need for some small way to indulge herself. Here we have sex as salvation and yet the connection is still fragile and momentary, rather like a work of flash fiction itself.
“Pretty” made me laugh out loud. Kathleen gamely agrees to a BDSM scene with her partner, Brady, but resents his perverse choice of a safeword—Pretty. Definitely literary irony at its best. I happen to know that BDSM-themed anthologies are selling briskly at one of my regular publishers, Cleis, and I often wondered who’s fueling this best-seller phenomenon—people who do it? People who want to do it and are afraid to mention it to their partners? But “Pretty” shows us the not-so-pretty reality of BDSM in an average American bedroom, where power play can’t gloss over the real emotions that course through a relationship. I must confess the ending was very satisfying.
“Mister Fixit” takes on a dumb porn movie cliché and makes it touching and wise. A sexually frustrated wife has a “hole that needs fixing” and she turns to a visiting handyman for sympathy. The two actually do end up in each other’s arms, but again the connection is not what we might expect. At the risk of giving it away, I’d like to quote this lovely passage, another of my favorites:
“He puts the tool down and opens his arms, and I go to him as the script directs. As he holds me in his smell of body odor and gas, putty and rank man, I can feel myself begin to disappear—it’s good. He squeezes tighter, a comfort hug, tighter and tighter. I am smaller and smaller in his arms. I am a wet spot on the shoulder of his grubby shirt, and then I am gone.”
Mmmm, nice, huh? I love the last story, “The Way It Is Scripted, the Way It Goes.” It’s about partner-swapping at an “adult party”, two couples getting naked in a shower. Standard fare for porn and even erotica, but here, for the male narrator, “the sight of Sarita’s bouncing breasts and brown nipples, her frizz of hair hung over into my golf buddy Paul’s face is raw and immutable fact, one I didn’t prepare for.” It’s sad, but it’s also sexy, too, in the way real bodies and real people arouse us, for example, when the narrator and a neighbor “[rub] Jasper’s thighs and behind with our wondrous, wonder-bound hands.” Literary sex is the reality, even when you follow the script, and Barnes’ collection ends with another penis, wagging its accusation and the epiphanous plip-plop of water on porcelain drowning out a woman’s cries of release.
Porn? Erotica? Literary sex? The boundaries are not always clear, even by my definition, but I’d say in general the more “literary” end of the spectrum involves care and insight on the part of the author and complexity of thought and emotion for the reader. As I read Rusty Barnes’ collection of flash fiction—or more accurately, devoured it, because it’s actually a real page-turner—I couldn’t help thinking of an exquisite Japanese Buddhist meal with its a tray of tiny dishes, each serving up a austere, perfectly-crafted tidbit. The fare is not especially sweet, and never rich, but it is ultimately satisfying and enlightening. Treat yourself to Breaking It Down for a taste of the same. Besides which, there’s an added bonus—by the end, you’ll realize that erections have a whole language of their own.