Book: 37 Stories About 37 Women
Author: Brian Whitney
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s one of those books that is more or less genre-less, and almost completely unmarketable in the modern book world. To be unmarketable is odd.
Availability: Published by Fanny Press in 2013, you can get a copy here:
Comments: It’s been a while since I’ve read a book so poorly served by its cover design and blurbs. When I received this book from the publisher, I actually cringed when I saw the cover. It looks like the sort of cover one would expect to see on a cheesy “herotica” book aimed at middle-class, middle-aged women who dream of seducing the pool boy and looking 18 again.
The blurbs didn’t really make much of a difference before I read the book but, once I was finished, the blurbs bore no resemblance to the book I read. Almost all the blurbs seem to be from men so perhaps this is a Venus-Mars situation, but I tend to think not. I have no idea what the dudes who called this a “funny, sexy, nasty little book” and “equally erotic and literary” were reading, but it was hard to link those comments to this book.
With the cover and these descriptions, one could come to the conclusion that this collection is traditional erotica. Or even just sort of hot vignettes. That’s not the case. Susie Bright isn’t going to anthologize any of these stories. I would be surprised (though not shocked) if these stories aroused anyone’s libido. None of the book was particularly erotic to my sensibilities, though it describes sexual relationships. It is reasonably literary, and there are some moments of humor, and some of the stories are a bit nasty, but this collection is not sexy at all, all the stranger since Fanny Press is an erotica publisher. Rather, this is a series of very short stories that describe mostly failed relationships with mostly really fucked-up women who get involved with equally fucked-up men. It’s still very interesting, and a compelling read, but all of this needs to be said in the event any of my readers buy this book. Writers seldom get to choose their cover design or art, so the cover can’t be counted against Whitney even as it completely misdescribes his book.
And it’s a shame that the cover is so awful because this is a book worth reading. It’s a difficult sort of book. It’s not the sort of book wherein you will find some overwhelming truth about the human condition because these 37 stories represent extremity of human experience. If you are like me, you will have a very hard time remembering which story went with which name, a danger when one writes such short stories. Some of the stories are little more than character sketches. You’re not interacting with the stories or the characters long enough for them to really register with you deeply the first time you read it. This is a book you can tackle in less than two hours and, if you read it, I recommend reading it a second time a week or so later so that the stories can settle in a bit more.
However, that is not to say that these stories lack depth. Each one is a peephole, a narrow view into a larger story. You only see a small, distorted glimpse. It’s also strange to call this book a peephole into relationships because a peephole is what you use to make sure you have no unwelcome intrusions into your own privacy. This book’s narrow view at male-female interactions sometimes feels like an intrusion, a voyeuristic peeking through a keyhole.
The stories – the titles are all women’s names – are told in first, second and third person and from the perspective of the women, the men and some unknown outsiders. As I said, because these stories are so short and because there are almost 40 of them in a 103 page book, I would be very surprised if anyone can remember a specific girl’s story without referring to the book. Still, there are elements of some of these stories that will stay with you. Caddish men, crazy women, the tolls of drug abuse, uneasy one-night-stands, strange relationships. Even though the format doesn’t lend itself well to remembering specifics, these slices of other people’s lives are entertaining to read.
Whitney’s got a style that reminds me a bit of what would happen if you combined Raymond Carver with Charles Bukowski, with a healthy dash of Tucker Max. Creepy sexual couplings and emotional pain filtered through a distant, near-minimalism. Though this collection did not set me on fire, Whitney has a wonderful style that is distinctive, clean and extremely readable. Given the extraordinarily liberal approach many small presses have regarding editing, this was a near-pristine read, if I overlook the strange substitution of “or” for “of” that happens periodically throughout the book.
Whitney’s stories offer little in the way of hope or redemption, focusing on the behaviors one expects from the worst of assholes. Here’s a snippet from “Caitlin:”
…Bill always tries to get me to fuck the women he hangs out with. Except for Joanne, of course. But he’s always trying to get me to come to his rat trap apartment and screw whatever fairly disgusting chick is around. Caitlin is doable, but there is this one heinous chick named Robin who Bill is constantly trying to get me to have sex with.
Like my ultimate fantasy is beating off in the face of a middle-aged chick with a bad haircut while my pillhead buddy beats off watching me.
He also tries to get me to do this around five p.m. The classic “blowing your load too early” kind of dudeal.
This story begins frat-boyishly enough. Bill is a scumbag sociopath and wants the narrator to screw Caitlin while he and another man named Seth watch. Caitlin is far more attractive than Robin, but the narrator deals with the moral dimension of this offer thusly:
…I was supposed to be going to meet my girlfriend right at that very moment and even though Caitlin is attractive, my girlfriend is actually much more so and it didn’t really seem worth it to risk losing everything just to bang Caitlin. In Biddeford. With Seth. At six p.m. When I would be stuck there all night. In a fucking ranch house. With Bill watching me.
He bows out and Caitlin seems relieved. But Bill is a sociopath and this story ends with a punch in the gut.
This went on for fifteen minutes.
“Fucking say it! ‘I want to fuck Brian and his Jew friend Seth.'”
For fifteen minutes. I was in the front of the car with Caitlin, touching her leg. Seth was in the back laughing his ass off. After fifteen minutes Bill grabbed the back of her neck.
“Say it. ‘I want to fuck Brian and his Jew friend Seth.'”
She said it. She said it over and over and over.
This is a lot to take in such a short story and it’s one of the stories I remember best. Whitney encapsulates perfectly those situations we just can’t get out of. Watching a pretty woman in thrall to a sadist. Maintaining associations that are more endurances than friendships for reasons we don’t fully understand. Unable to intervene because we just know that it will make everything even worse for the Caitlins stuck in cars with Bills.
There are other stories that mine similarly unpleasant veins. “Tracie” begins with the line,
It wasn’t rape at the time.
and ends with the line:
After a moment she looked at the three of them and asked “Who lives here?”
“Carrie” tells of a middle-aged man who meets a lesbian playing World of Warcraft. She shares her fantasies with him as he guides her into deeper, darker waters. She thinks he is her friend and she tells him of the incredibly violent things she would do to a woman the man made up, Catfish-style, if she could get away with it.
You were amazed you could share this side of yourself with me. You had never shared it with anyone. You’d had these fantasies since you were young, a teenager. How you would take some girl at school and totally ruin her life.
Of course none of this turned me on at all. I’d just pretend to orgasm into the phone at the same time you did.
What turned me on was that you felt so diabolical because you were fooling this girl, controlling her – this girl who did not even exist.
The only person being controlled and hunted was you.
The rest of the collection is similarly horrible. A man sets up his boss, engaging her in submissive sex play involving drugs, then going to HR and deliberately getting her fired because he could later use the experience as a means of leaving with a healthy severance because he felt the stigma of the situation tainted him in the workplace. A man picks up a tall, athletic woman and ill uses her, essentially playing her ass as a bongo drum because he finds it visually interesting. A man cheats on his girlfriend but the affair turns out to be a stalker who refuses to back off. She eventually ruins his primary relationship and he is unhappy because he enjoyed his girlfriend’s company but hated having sex with her, and enjoyed having sex with his affair but loathed hanging out with her.
There was really only one male character in this collection I had much sympathy for, the man in “Emily.” Emily was a heroin user and the man, a depressive who had dated Emily because of a bad break up, seemed hapless. He was not so bad, or perhaps it was that Emily was so much worse.
I also had some sort of connection with the narrator of “Sarena.” He’s married but has an affair with a woman who is so sexually and socially submissive that she will do anything he tells her to do, even acting as furniture if he asked her.
After my wife found out about you she would say, “Call her up and make her bark like a dog” or “Tell her to quack into the phone.” You would bark and quack. You would. It was wild.
But his wife eventually left him and he was left bereft, too aware of the terrible mistake he made.
So it was horrible. I had lost my best friend in the world, the best friend I’d ever had in my entire life. For a coffee table. You had started out my friend and you turned into a coffee table.
How long can you love a coffee table?
This collection is a well-written rubberneck into the sorry lives of others, told through the trope of discussing 37 women. But more often than not we know so much more about the men. Whitney paints a very bleak picture, a very unsexy picture, of human relations. There is a wry humor that runs through the collection, combined with a palpable sense of horror and unease. It is the humor and dread that keeps this collection from becoming a misogynistic wallow. The man who piously claims that not all men who come home with you want to have sex had shown himself to be a ridiculous human being because he says this after using a woman’s ass as a quasi-puppet show. In “Caitlin” we are shown such a despicable situation that there is no way anyone could have sympathy for anyone but Caitlin, but even then there is that insidious feeling of contempt that often comes for those who let themselves be treated so poorly. It’s fine writing that permits the reader to interact with such characters and enjoy the story while experiencing such negative feelings.
In a way, this collection is a marvel. Almost every story has at least one horrible character and almost every story is two pages long. To have left such a collection of miserable people and experiences and finding myself thinking about the fine writing is no small authorial feat. If you are a fan of extremely short stories, bordering on flash fiction, you will want to give this collection a look, but mostly this collection is for the misery dwellers amongst us, myself included, who just want to experience the worst people bring to the table. If you are the sort who cannot help but listen to the couple arguing at the table next to yours at the restaurant, rubbernecking at the car crashes of human relationships, you’ll find much to love in this collection.
Also, I cannot resist mentioning this, but this was one of the first things I thought about when I saw the title of this collection. I’m almost ashamed that I remember this song.
Even though this collection brought this stupid song to mind, it’s an excellent showcase of Whitney’s writing and story-telling skills. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.