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Book Review : The Sex Novel's Simple, Pleasing World

April 27, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

The Celestial Bed by Irving Wallace (Delacorte: $17.95)

We're looking at a cultural artifact here: a "One Hoss Shay" of sex novels in the American 20th Century. The fact that this book has been fashioned by Irving Wallace--a master of the genre--will make it worth reading for Wallace fans, and fans of the genre itself. But "The Celestial Bed" may also be worth reading for sociologists, anthropologists, journalists--all those who make their careers by keeping their fingers on the various pulses of the American body cultural and politic.

The author is at once dealing with conventions of the sex novel, and reminding his readers that he knows their conventions.

What a simple, pleasing cosmos the world of the sex novel gives us, after all (providing we can stand the alarming vulgarity of language). In the world of this kind of novel, the people who engage in good-humored sex are also kind to each other, and politically responsible. The bad lovers (or the people who deny the sexual urge) are anti-Semites, anti-black, anti-Latino, pay their employees low wages with no benefits, make many grammatical mistakes and are apt to maintain connections with the Mob. Worse than all that, they may be television evangelists who preach against sex education in the schools.

'Chippies' and 'Prosties'

These mobsters, evangelists, conniving district attorneys and so on know nothing about foreplay, describe the sexual act in ways not suitable to record in a family newspaper and refer to women who aren't married and have sex--in this case, very nice sexual surrogates--as "chippies" and "prosties" (terms my granddad doubtless used to use, but he's dead now).

Yes, "The Celestial Bed" is about sexual surrogates, and about men who are (a) impotent or (b) suffer from premature ejaculation. Also, the book is about the use of male surrogates to help women who suffer from vaginismus--the physical inability to engage in natural heterosexual acts.

Dr. Freeberg sets up a surrogate clinic in California. He hires several lady surrogates and one male surrogate to work for him. The prettiest lady, Gayle, and the male, Paul, fall in love. They keep trying to consummate their romance, but they (a) repeatedly fall asleep from exhaustion, or (b) keep offending each other by talking shop as they peel off their clothes for an evening's affection. (Again, the author can't keep from gently spoofing this form even as he writes in it: The idea of two sex surrogates suffering from an inability to have sex because of their own insecurities is both distancing and sophisticated. And yet these scenes take up at least 10% of the novel.)

Puritanism Downward

Why is "The Celestial Bed" like Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem about the "One Hoss Shay?" Remember when, forced to read that work in high school, you were told that the shay pertained to American puritanism, a belief system that had worked and worked, right up until the day that--all at once--it fell apart.

The belief in free heterosexual sex as an index to general human good has been around in our living history since D. H. Lawrence. But by now we really must know that Protestant evangelists, even when they misbehave, don't try to throw sulfuric acid in the faces of "prosties" they don't like. The world doesn't work that way! The belief system no longer pertains.

The main reality factor that threatens the belief system, of course, is AIDS. At first Dr. Freeberg suggests to his surrogates that they insist on a diaphragm and spermicide. But a page or two later, advising new surrogates, the beauteous Gayle contradicts both her boss and herself: "Let me say frankly, you're in a high-risk job. . . . First, no deep kissing with patients . . . second, permit no penetration without the use of a condom. . . . Confidentially, I don't insist on my patients using a condom. . . . Anyway, follow the safe suggestions I've made and the odds are strongly in your favor that you won't have anything to fear."

No, it just can't work anymore, that free and easy idea of non-monogamous sex. Death by AIDS is not funny. The belief system can't stand up against its horror. That's why this celestial bed is a cultural artifact, an antiquated voice echoing out to us from the past.

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