January 2004

Liz Miller

fiction

Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe

I asked to review Naked Came the Stranger by "Penelope Ashe" because the concept, as described, seemed like an awful lot of fun. For a group of writers at Newsday, one drunken evening in 1966, deciding to follow in the grand footsteps of Jacqueline Susann by co-writing a trashy novel, sounded like the sort of insane joke my friends and I would dream up one drunken evening. The fact these writers saw it rise to bestseller glory upon publication was the perfect punch line. But when I tore open the envelope containing the book, I realized that in the end, the joke was on me -- because I was going to have to read the damn thing. And about three chapters in, it became pretty clear why everyone drank so much in the '60s.

Gillian Blake is a talk radio host and semi-content housewife living in Long Island with her husband Billy. When she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, Gillian decides that instead of divorce or murder, the perfect revenge would be screwing her way through the happily married men of Long Island. At first an act of vengeance against her husband, then against the institution of marriage as a whole, Gillian's erotic adventures include assignations with an abortionist, a boxer, a Mafioso, and the town's token gay man, who is "cured" of homosexuality by the virtue of Gillian's magnificent breasts. Gillian drinks heavily, fucks freely, and saves the gay man from sodomy -- in short, she's the patron saint of male fantasies.

Really, it would have been a lot of fun -- were it not so boring. Like most '60s sexpots, this book hasn't aged well, a relic of a time when sex sold with scandalous ease, no matter how unremarkable it might be. I had signed up to read about wild and crazy sexcapades spicing up dull suburban life; instead, I found myself wading through chunks of overwrought prose describing the perfect form and features of the heroine (well, not perfect -- her lips are "a trifle small"). The title may be pretty salacious, but the book pales in comparison -- no threesomes, no bondage, no wacky positions. The closest thing to perversion is some crazy Philippine Island practice involving crushed ice in a very uncomfortable place (and no, not the back of a Volkswagen), which is more ridiculous than erotic.

The biggest anachronism, I suppose, is the preface, which details the origins of the project and the source for many of the in-jokes peppering the story. In it, the genre of books the writers are attempting to emulate are referred to as Big Money books; but nowadays, they're called romance novels, and I know for a fact that Big Money is not easily had in that particular market.

I don't know the actual sales for Naked Came the Stranger, but I hope that it purchased many shakers of martinis for the intrepid 24. I hope that they derived many long hours of laughter from their cleverness, that they still reread passages today and chuckle over long-forgotten inside jokes.

But I hope that the next time I have to read a trashy novel, it's a fresh and juicy one. After about forty years, they tend to dry out.

Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe
Barricade Books
ISBN: 1569802629
255 Pages