One of the vexing mysteries of modern letters is why so few authors choose to write about sex. I don’t mean sex as peddled by Madison Avenue, or the San Fernando Valley, but sex as it actually exists in our lives: an insatiable, ecstatic, and profoundly fraught experience. Thank God, then, for Stephen Elliott. In this slim volume of stories, he writes about almost nothing but sex.
“This could have been a sexual memoir,” Elliott notes in his wry introduction. “Ultimately, I made the poor marketing choice of calling this a book of stories because there were too many things in it I knowingly made up.” He didn’t make up the rude bits. Those, he assures us, are lifted directly from his life.
For Elliott (a frequent contributor to this magazine) sex is not so much a source of pleasure as a gateway to the trauma of his youth, much of which was spent as a ward of the state of Illinois. The typical Elliott liaison is the precise opposite of the airbrushed misogyny that passes for erotica in the popular imagination:
Mr. Gracie didn’t ask me if it was OK and he didn’t apologize afterward. When I masturbate at night I think of him, not of his image or his malty smell, just the darkness and the fear and the pain… And that’s what I think about when Bell buckles into her strap-on and pushes me over the table, her thick hand around my neck closing my windpipe, the weight of her wide hips pressing against me.
The pieces collected here all offer some variation of this brutal tableau. But Elliott also finds moments of exquisite tenderness. One woman, after administering a particularly epic flogging, “rubbed her hand over my face, washing my cheeks with my tears.” He writes of another lover: “I’m so far gone, so in love, I can barely think. I stare at her cheeks, her nose. I can see every pore, blood vessels below the surface of her skin, hairs that will turn grey one day.”
There’s an emotional courage to these stories, and a sense of urgency, that are thrilling to encounter. Elliott writes as if his life depended on each sentence. It is not overstating the case to say that he does for the BDSM community in this book what Denis Johnson did for lost druggies in Jesus’ Son. He finds the lyric within their darkest moments, and by confessing to the full truth of their experience, discovers a path to redemption.
In his brilliant epilogue, Elliott tells us that he may finally have outlasted his own need for degradation. He has found a beautiful girlfriend, one who lovingly straps on a dildo and does him from behind without a hint of cruelty:
On my end I’m just trying to keep the rhythm. I can’t help but let out all these little moans of pleasure. I’m having a really good time. Here’s what makes me think I’m not kinky anymore. This time, instead of thinking about my father and all the bad stuff that happened when I was younger, I’m thinking about what she looks like fucking me. I’m also thinking about a hamburger and a chocolate shake. I’m being fucked and it feels really good and I’m thinking, Oh man, I would love a chocolate shake right now.
If that’s not a happy ending, I don’t know what is.