(This story is included in the new book, SHORT ROAD TO HELL.)
Shortly after my first novel, Bahamarama, came out, I mailed a copy to my mother. I can tell you that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that caused me as much anxiety as the thought of my mother reading my first novel.
Days went by. The book got nice reviews by lots of magazines and newspapers. But not a word from my mother. It was excruciating.
Finally the call came.
“I read your book,” my mother said. I waited. “And I loved it. Just loved it. I am sooooo proud of you.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom,” I said.
She told me she had called up all her friends in town and told them to go out and buy my book.
“You’re the best, Mom,” I said.
Then, she said, she had gotten together with her friends over lunch one day to talk about the book.
“Everyone loved it. We all thought the setting and the characters were wonderful. The dialogue was funny and smart. And none of us had any idea about the ending. It caught us by surprise,” my mother said. “But …”
“But what, Mom?”
“Well, we all agreed that there just wasn’t enough sex.”
I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but I think it involved a lot of mumbling. Then we started talking about my mother’s recipe for fried chicken and how it should always be cooked in an electric skillet not cast iron and always with Crisco from the can not Wesson oil.
YOU HAVE REACHED A CURIOUS JUNCTURE IN LIFE when your 80-year-old mother tells you that the book you’ve written needs more sex. It causes you to, well, reflect. And fidget. And re-think things.
So when I sat down to write my second novel, Jamaica Me Dead, I took my mother’s critique to heart. I set it at an anything-goes, all-inclusive resort modeled loosely after Negril’s infamous “Hedonism II,” a place I had recently visited to conduct, uh, research.
True story from Hedonism II: Late one evening I was in one of the resort’s cocktail lounges. There were lots of naked people. In fact, I was one of the very few people who was not naked. Loud music was playing and people were dancing and there were some people who, while it looked as if they were dancing, were doing significantly more than that. And they were doing it in time with the music! It was quite a spectacle. I actually took notes. I am nothing if not an indefatigable researcher. I was also feeling extremely awkward and needed to do something with my hands and felt that writing in my notebook was the best course of action. Only, that caused people to look at me like I was some kind of sicko. So I stuck my notebook in a pocket, but I pulled it out again just a few minutes later so I could write down what ranks as the absolute best direct quote I’ve ever written down in my career as a sicko journalist. The only other people in the lounge wearing clothes were some of the Hedonism II employees and one of them, a pretty woman who had introduced herself earlier as the evening’s “experience director,” suddenly took the microphone and announced: “THERE WILL BE NO SEX ON THE PIANO! I REPEAT: NO SEX ON THE PIANO!”
I promise that is true. I wrote it down. And then I spent the rest of the evening perched on the safety of the piano not having sex.
So. When it came time to create a fictional resort for Jamaica Me Dead, I called it
“Libido.” It boasted such features as a naked flume ride, naked volleyball, naked yoga—naked everything—and a “Bondage Night,” where women led their men around on dog leashes. The hero, Zack Chasteen, had to contend with two hot-to-trot gals from Tennessee who were intent on jumping his bones at every turn. He also had to contend with Ama Aji. It’s something I made up just for the book—the fictional bark of a fictional tree that, when chewed, can ward off the need for sleep for days at a time. The side effect: When a guy chews Ama Aji he gets the hard-on of all hard-ons. We’re talking a boner that will not stop even in the coldest of cold showers.
Yes, compared to my first book, there was more sex in Jamaica Me Dead. Or at least, more stuff that hinted at sex. I would get emails from readers, like: “You know that part where Zack chews on the bark from the tropical tree and it gives him a 12-hour erection? Where can I buy some?”
I got emails from other readers who asked: “Whatever possessed you to write something like that?”
And I could honestly answer: “Well, I just wanted to make my mom happy.”
STILL, MOST OF THE SEX IN THE BOOK was the kind of sex that guys typically write about: the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety. When things start to get hot and heavy, most guy writers figure it is time to cue up the next chapter, a chapter, most likely, where fights are fought and guns are fired and stuff explodes. Okay, a few guys are good at writing sex scenes. But just between you and me? I don’t trust ‘em.
Still, from a mercenary marketing standpoint, I know how important it is for me to figure out a way to inject sex into my books. Women buy seventy percent of all books and it is abundantly clear what women want. It ain’t brilliant dialogue.
I’ve tried, really I have. In early drafts of my third novel, Bermuda Schwartz, I included some scenes where Zack Chasteen and his ladylove, Barbara Pickering, frolic in the way men and women were designed to frolic. I didn’t actually break out in a sweat as I was writing these passages, but I thought I had done a fairly decent job. No, scratch that. I thought I had done a masterful job, combining my own astute insights into the man-woman thang and a sensitivity of endless bounds.
“Get rid of this crap,” my wife said when she read it.
“Why?” I asked. “I thought the book could use a little sex.”
“It can, but this isn’t it.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s kinda wham-bam, thank you m’am. And for another …”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“For another, I don’t want people I know to read this and think that’s how we do it.”
“You mean, that particular technique?”
“Yes, that. Or any technique for that matter.”
“So what you’re saying is …”
“What I’m saying is, maybe you ought to forget writing about sex.”
But I think maybe she needs to talk to my mom.