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Honesty flying

Seducing the Demon Writing for My Life Erica Jong Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin: 282 pp., $22.95

April 16, 2006|Diana Wagman | Diana Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

ERICA JONG has more chutzpah in her erogenous zones than most writers have in their entire being. She's one of the few who'd say, "I have longed to be able to do the diva on appropriate occasions, but I'm too short," then admit in the next sentence, "As for the care and feeding of studs, I did that in my thirties and forties and had my fill."

In 1972, when Jong was barely 30 years old, her first novel, "Fear of Flying," swept her to fame. Here was a character, Isadora Wing, who had sex, talked about sex, wanted sex, made bad sexual choices and survived to laugh and talk about it. Hers was a woman's voice that had not been heard before. Thirty-four years and 16 books later, time has not mellowed that voice. Her new memoir, "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life," is political, irreverent, risque and wonderfully unrepentant.

Before we get caught up in the sex -- and there's plenty of it: fantasies about Bill Clinton, possibilities with writer Ted Hughes, a one-night stand with Martha Stewart's husband -- we must realize that her every book, from "Fear of Flying" to "Fear of Fifty," her every subject, whether witchcraft, Henry Miller or Sappho, is really about the importance of Truth. What shocked her readers in 1972 was her honesty. And although her desires, fantasies and unusual peccadilloes entertain the prurient in us, it is her candor we admire. She might call it fiction, nonfiction or poetry, but her thoughts, words and feelings are deep and real.

Jong begins this memoir with her speech to City University of New York graduates. She decided to say what she really thought -- about politics, about language, about the state of the world. She talked about our "Misleader in Chief" and how language has been corrupted. "Phrases like 'axis of evil' and '9/11 changed everything' ... are meant to instill those fuzzy feelings of pride and patriotism that prevent clear thinking." She was unafraid to be booed; she was.

Her honesty can make us cringe. The beautiful words of Walt Whitman, "There was a child went forth every day; / And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became," and Jong's equally lovely observation that in reading those words she became "part of the book" are only foreplay to describing a seemingly endless act of oral sex she felt obligated to give an ancient publisher. He'd promised her a fortune for her unwritten first novel. It never happened, but "once you're on your knees it's tough to escape gracefully." We laugh and cry for young Erica.

"Seducing the Demon" is peripatetic. Salacious tidbits about sex with famous poets and younger men and women pepper the story. Essays about her daughter, author Molly Jong-Fast, and her time in rehab; about Jong's strained relationship with her mother; about growing up Jewish; Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; an ex-lover delivering a side of beef -- get equal time. There's no attempt to rewrite the past. "Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays," she says. "They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more."

She tells us how sexy she found Hughes, whose wife, Sylvia Plath, famously committed suicide, and that "only my terror of Sylvia's ghost kept me from being seduced." A few pages later, she says Plath's poems changed her life. "They were unapologetically female. An Amazon wrote them riding bareback. She had cut off one breast and dipped her quill in her blood."

Jong also is unapologetically female. Her muse is a man, a demon lover. "He appears at dusk and is banished by dawn. He is part vampire. We long for him to come and drink our blood. Let me show you the fang-marks on my throat." She shows every mark, wart and wrinkle she has and we revel in them with her. We watch her mature in her sexual escapades, from naive and curious to clinically exploring the G-spot and the whole-body orgasm she experiences with her post-heart-attack fourth husband. She makes it sound fantastic to be 60-ish and female. Not a popular point of view, but it's what she believes and that ultimately is what surprises us.

I can see this book wrapped as a gift for Mother's Day, birthdays, anniversaries. Women should be talking about this book. Men should be reading this book. We should all try to live up to her standard of self-awareness.

Like the delight my great-grandmother (and probably Jong's) felt splashing her arms in the summer heat with the cool water of the Coney Island surf, reading "Seducing the Demon" is mechaye, a pleasure. *

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