Dialogue published a letter of complaint about the fiction in Vol. 43, Num. 1 - Spring 2010 ("Straight Home" by Lisa Torcasso Downing and "Badge and Bryant, or, the Decline and Fall of the Dogfrey Club" by Levi S. Peterson). Editor Kristine allowed both Lisa and Levi to respond. Levi did, and his comments match what we would expect of him; Lisa did not, but told Kristine she "was too busy laughing . . . then begged her to please, please, please run the guy's letter."
(She told me this when I congratulated her on her new membership in the League of Mormon Pornographers.)
Lisa sent me a copy of her story upon my request, and I took so long to read it that Levi's is now available for free online.
Let's discuss them, shall we? It feels like we haven't talked about sex in literature for ages.
"Straight Home" read
For all Lisa's protestations to the contrary, the story has plenty enough sex. Especially if you include ogling naked women, which I suspect many readers will. Especially the reader ready for a pornographic event.
That said, to call the story prurient is to, sigh, dismiss sexuality as a legitimate concern of literature. Which, if you are still reading these posts, I presume you must agree with.
Anyway, a bit of SPOILERy plot to orient you, then we'll dig in.
Bart marries Natalie. She has strange "birthmarks" which end up being evidence of childhood abuse. The psychological damage leads her, later in their marriage, to engage in activities that are clear neither to the reader nor Bart (whose point-of-view we're viewing things through). She may be cheating on him, she may not, who can tell. Anyway, their marriage has been damaged enough that Bart can interpret his still being with her as evidence of his excellence of a human being. (Not to suggest he lacks self-awareness. He's aware that his feelings lean in this direction and though he agrees with them, he is not proud of them.)
Natalie spends much of the story naked or getting naked. The flashback to their post-consummation honeymoon morning. Her taking off her clothes after church in order to take a shower. The shower.
But Natalie is naked in other ways, ways her husband has forced upon her. Like her scars, her nakedness is also both physical and psychological. Her husband, through his shrink, has come to recognize her cigarrette burns for what they are; and he has told their bishop and sicced him on her.
The overlay of nakedness and pain, sex and abuse, continues throughout the story. The scars he first sees, that honeymoon morning, are placed on a "hidden, erogenous area" behind her hair (which, tellingly, has grown longer, not shorter, since first they met). But the hair that he thinks of most over the course of "Straight Home" is the hair hiding a scar of another sort.
Speaking of erogenous areas, and yes I mean Natalie's vagina, when Bart looks at her naked body now, his thoughts are not just about sex, but the emotional and physical results of intercourse:
His eyes caressed her, moving from the crown of her wet headThat she has given birth is not obvious in looking at her. Those are scars she also hides.
down to the breasts with which she had suckled their children, then on to
the abdomen that had swelled, and to the region that had delivered. Finally,
he took in the legs that once upon a time had wrapped around him and made
him believe she had wanted him.
Bart and Natlie have not been engaging in sex together, and Bart is afraid their marriage is collapsing and he fears losing their kids---he thinks is disappearing, invsible---but, at the end, when they do have sex? He is "satisfied." That is all it takes. That is all he needed. Is her surrender.
Just prior to leading him to bed, Natalie recognizes something in him and begins a seduction as she steps from the shower and sits on his lap. "Tiny dots, pin pricks, rose all along her curves." At first, before I realized I was simply seeing goosebumps, I read these pricks (advertant pun, methinks) as new, fresh cigarette burns---evidence that she has a new beau (so to speak). But no. Just the cold. Because she has left the shower still wet to please a man.
Among the things she says on his lap is "'I’ve been a very naughty girl.'" A sentence which, let's be honest, makes her sound pretty darned regressive. But is it a sign of her psychological unhealth? Is it is some sort of lolita sexplay---and if so, is it a sign that she views Bart as the latest in a line of male dominators . . . or just that she's seen enough sitcoms to know this is sexy? Or, or is she completely serious? And she does feel that "naughty" is the best way to decribe her hours-long absenses and closed legs?
And then when she says, "'Take care of me'"? Is she unable to grow up? Unwilling? Prevented by her past or by her husband?
Can she be healed?
Will Bart ever stop feeling that the scars from old abuse are eyes staring at him, no matter which way she turns?
"Straight Home" (which could be double entendre itself), for all it's naked lady sexy sex, is a complex look at the relationships between sex and power and love and abuse and commitment and marriage and children and hope. It's an ambitious story. And one that I think could provide an opening to couples with true sexual issues to discuss their own difficulties. If this is pornography, it is a moral pornography.
"Badge and Bryant, or, the Decline and Fall of the Dogfrey Club" read
Lisa's story is about sex between adults. Levi's is about kids who are just becoming aware of the eixistance of such relationships and, in connection to that, how a fourteen-year-old boy can turn a woman crossing the street into a pornographic event. It's amazing what kids can do with a small amount of information and vast stores of ignorance.
Badge is, as is incorporated into his name, the "bad" cousin. He's the one who comes up with the notion of the Dogfrey Club, the members of which are expected to swear they will get not get married unless it's a shotgun married. Then he spends the summer creating extravagent fantasies regarding that scenario. But as we slip inside his mind and view his fantasies, they don't seem to be heavy on fornication. They deal more with the girl's brothers beating him up. And after the wedding? The fantasy ends with a kiss:
Glancing piteously up at him, she obviously expected at bestBadge, for all his new swear words and casual knowledge of sex stuff, is still a good kid. He's learning how to navigate his knew knowledge and the approach of adulthood ("Sorting out an adult identity was perplexing, to say the least."), and that seems to mean exploring the bad as well as the good.
a callous indifference on his part. Happily, the narrative
now called for Badge to yield to his throbbing love and allow
a warm, reassuring smile to replace his hitherto stolid,
apathetic countenance—a transmutation which the long-neglected
girl at first did not dare accept as sincere. It was not until
he took her in his arms and pressed a long, fervent kiss upon
her lips that she began to feel the first inklings of a hope
that had eluded her for weeks. Suddenly, relief and gratitude
swept her wan, fine-featured face, and her eyes welled with
happy tears. With that, this version of the saga ended.
Bryant (with the beginnings of "righteous" hidden inside his name) has been happy to play along with Badge, but the Dogfrewy club seems to be a step too far:
. . . sex was too delicate, too problematic, too fraught withBecause remember---the purpose of the Dogfrey Club is not sex, but marriage. A certain kind of marriage that will spread scandle, but in the end, Badge just wants to end up with the girl he loves.
ambiguity, to trifle with by inventing such a superf luity as a
Dogfrey Club. Sex being what it had turned out to be, as much of
a messy necessity for human beings as for animals, you shouldn’t
come to it via the back door by not even taking the trouble to
get married first when getting married was what you had in mind
Badge had fed on lust for LillieDale without thinking of itI'm going to leave the story behind for a second and philosophize, if that's all right. I think there's a real lesson here for adults in Levi's tale. These are good boys. They're trying to reconcile their understanding of love and marriage, received from their parents, with their understanding of sex, informed by certain Changes no one's explaining to them.
as lust. It was love—tender, grand, unique in the annals of
history, light-years beyond mere lust.
Lust was not an emotion that any Mormon male, old or young,And with no one explaining it to them, they have to work it out for themselves.
could easily admit to, it being generally supposed in the
Mormon world that there is no similarity between the sinful
emotion of lust and the ardor which drives a husband to beget
legitimate babies upon his duly-wed wife.
This important part of growing up---how should we help our kids out with it? Or can we?
The story is third-person limited, but limited to two characters, both Badge and Bryant (which I suppose one might call omniscient, but that seems inaccurate here). Both undergo some serious bildungsroman, but Badge's change is more consscious, thoughtful, grudging, and thorough.
He grows to understand he is not only capable of recognizing a woman's sexual draw, he is incapable of not noticing it. And if that is true of him, it must be true of everyone. The Mormon men he looks up to included. And if that's true, then they must be as capable of imagining sin as he has been happy imagining sin. And if that's true, and they are adults, nothing can stop them from gross sexual misconduct. And if that's true, aren't they all guilty?
Navigating this crisis forces Badge to look for a solution that does not require relying on the evaporated good examples of his youth.
And that grappling and solving of crisis is what makes him into a new person and the demise of the Dogfrey Club.
It's a lovely story. I kind of want to slip it to the young men in my ward and see what they think. But I'm not really in a position to do that. . . . And I'm kind of too much of a troublemaker anyway, doncha think?