Vulgar Lives by Rosalyn Drexler
You may not have heard of Vulgar Lives, Rosalyn Drexler’s fictional paean to a deceased brother, but prolific author Joyce Carol Oates knows about it. As a matter of fact, she’s unabashed in her feelings about the novella masquerading as a novel: “I’ve never read anything like this… in fact I haven’t read this.” Having led a nation of women to embrace feminism, Gloria Steinem, the mother of Ms., doesn’t mince words about the book, either: “Vulgar Lives surpasses even Drexler’s past incarnations as funky teenager or lady wrestler, and makes us see and love the absurd.” And speaking of women who’ve helped change this country, Oprah Winfrey, who’s Book Club recommendations somehow got both Tolstoy and Faulkner on the bestseller lists, has this to say: “Vulgar Lives contains passages stolen from novels I would have liked to publish.”
Praise from Oates, Steinem, Winfrey, and a cast of other literati grace the back cover of Drexler’s book. Yet if you squint, you’ll see, in 8-pt type, these words: “warning: celebrity blurbs are fictitious.” See? It’s all a joke. Isn’t that funny? Well, maybe, if you’re a fan of pranks. But if your funny bone gets no tickle from that, then you’re in trouble, since the faux back-cover praise she doles out is about all the humor you’re gonna get.
Of course, this may come across as absurd, given what the book is about: a young writer, who, having gained a writing residency in Italy, laments the loss of her brother. This brother meant a lot to the unnamed narrator. So much so, that the two embarked upon a rather perilous journey together: namely, an incestuous affair. But -- Sorpresa! -- the affair went kaput, their relationship soured and, somewhere along the line, brother Edmund wound up dying. Alone, distraught, the narrator pines for him, their lives and a love that could have been.
Now, from a writer’s perspective, what could be better than fueling a novel(la) with the fire of a taboo? And make that taboo incest and, well, you one up Nabakov and his Lo.Lee.Ta. But you need to be the literary equivalent of a fire artist to control any taboo-born inferno you light under a reader and, sad to say, Drexler appears more comfy with writing chilly prose than heated. In her defense, she’s got imagination by the bucket load. She even possesses a swift writing style. But what she doesn’t own is that skill for narrative drive that can lead you to an unknown destination. Which means she has to rely on tricks. Like Tommy the Turd. Yeah, you read right: turd.
Tommy rears his fecal head about a quarter way through the book, which is a wanna-be epistolary. Up until then, the narrator, in short chapters, has been detailing attempts to learn Italian, decrying the poor residency meals, describing the mountainous terrain. Then one day, she writes to her “Dear Brother” of a possible book idea she’s dreamed up, one recounting adventures scatological. The tale begins thus: “Tommy the turd entered the world in a most natural way; he was sent sliding (with a squeeze as honest as a handshake) down a dark tunnel into a pool of cool water, where, if he’d had his way he would have stayed forever.” Tommy continues to pop up throughout the book, taking us on ever lengthening digressive journeys.
At first, Tommy’s presence distracts. But then, unexpectedly, Tommy’s tale gains momentum, becoming more enthralling than the actual narrative. And that’s a pretty sad statement, considering the highlights of Tommy’s presence are his hankering for writing poetry, which he performs at a club before an agent -- and what agent wouldn’t sign a poetical turd? -- and, certamente, his good fortune to fall in love with a lady turd. But then, just as abruptly as the narrator had introduced Tommy, she gives him the axe. You might think his demise would bring about a breath of fresh air, but instead, it nearly deprives the narrative of all oxygen. The result? A book that’s as much a slog as walking shoeless through a blizzard in search of the Yeti: not only do you wonder if there’ll ever be a payoff, you also consider, every few minutes, whether you should give up the beast and head home to a warm bed.
Such criticism isn’t meant to be cruel. But when a turd enthralls more than a forbidden relationship, something’s gone wrong. Drexler seems to know this, throwing in the narrator’s imagined run-ins with John and Yoko, and Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Or maybe they’re not imagined. Maybe the narrator is losing her mind and we get to watch her slow descent into madness. If only that descent were a toboggan ride gaining momentum, instead of a jalopy that merely peters out.
Maybe what could have helped Drexler inside the book was what she placed on the back cover: humor. Sure, you can snicker that among the “praise” heaped upon the book is the National Enquirer’s claim that Vulgar Lives is “HOT! HOT! HOT!” But if the story could’ve maintained even a hint of the circus-like atmosphere that keeps the Enquirer in business, chances are the book would have been impossible to put down. Combine that I-know-it’s-trash-but-I-love-it-anyway attitude with the story of a doomed-from-the-start sister/brother love affair and Drexler would have been on to something captivating, instead of a novella where a piece of crap steals the show.
Vulgar Lives by Rosalyn Drexler