HAPPYLAND — by one of the coolest authors we know, J. ROBERT LENNON — is finally out! This is the novel that W. W. Norton pulled from production in 2005 over fears of libel, that Harper’s Magazine ran in serial (though heavily abridged)in the fall of 2006, and that Dzanc and Open Road are finally, and for the first time ever, bringing out in an unabridged e-book edition. (It’s a New and Notable pick on Amazon for the month of October.) We have the honor of running two intriguing excerpts from the book — the first one is below (spoiler alert: it’s got strap-ons!); check out Part II here. If you can’t wait, BUY THE BOOK! For more convincing, check out the excellent video at the bottom of this post about the story behind this book that almost wasn’t.
Sally Streit took the stage to
frenzied applause, her muscled arms pumping, her large head nodding, her grin like a battle flag on her round, comical face. She was wearing, of all things, a floral-print long-sleeved cotton dress, pearls, and pumps, and only the very tip of a tattoo could be seen peeking up over the neckline: the head of a hummingbird, the top half of its flower. She stood at the foot of the stage, between two of its lights, in front of a high curtain of black damask, and she continued to pump, and to nod, and to grin, and soon the cheers took on a rhythm, a kind of Dionysian pulse, and the floor was shaken by sneakers and boots, and the air torn by the sharp report of claps, and the room filled up with the unexpectedly masculine grunting that had overtaken the world of sports and television talk shows: OO!-OO!-OO!-OO! the girls of Equinox College chanted, four hundred strong, and soon Sally Streit herself was clapping, applauding the applause, for it had pleased her. “All right!” she exclaimed, “All right!!”
In time, she held up her hands in a desperate plea for calm, her grin never for a moment subsiding, her legs set far apart like a conquering warrior’s. “What a crowd!” she hooted, and that set it all off again, some of the students actually getting up out of their seats, jumping, stomping and clapping and whistling with renewed fervor. Sally Streit, feigning astonishment, put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Wow, her mouth said silently. Wow!!
When the applause began to die down, the “wow”s became audible, conversational, and Sally Streit breathed a sigh of exhaustion, and saidagain “What…a…crowd,” before silence, more or less, finally fell over the auditorium.
“Take it off!” came a voice, and in the very back of the room, in a far corner, in the shadow of the mezzanine…
Sally Streit feigned shock. “You don’t like my dress?” she demanded, and the room erupted in laughter. Clearly it was a much-uttered gag line…. The joke went on, melding into monologue: the shtick was underway. A rustle and exhalation filled the room as four hundred young women made themselves comfortable in their seats.
“I can’t believe it, they don’t like my dress!” said Sally Streit, shaking her head. “Do you know how much I paid for this? It’s Laura Ashley!” A few chuckles. “And these are 100% genuine cultured pearls, and these stockings are pure silk, and these shoes—well, don’t get me going on the shoes!
“Girls, I used to dress like this every…single…day.” A murmur of astonishment. “Back in my youth, I used to be married—that’s right, married—to a prominent man, a television personality. He wasn’t a bad man, or a mean man, but he expected things to be a certain…way. And one of those things, I’m sad to tell you, was me.
“Oh, he loved me, I believe that, but along with his love came rules. He went shopping with me, to pick out my clothes. He was the one with the money, and so he decided how, when, and where it would be spent. He bought me these pearls, and this dress, and these shoes. And I was happy—or at least I thought I was. I went to parties, to banquets, to events of every stripe, and this is how I dressed. And at night, when my husband and I came home from these parties, I got undressed the same way. By him.”
An ominous ooooo of displeasure circled the auditorium, which Sally Streit tried without much enthusiasm to dismiss. “Now, now, it wasn’t all that bad. He loved me, after all. But even once I was undressed—once my pearls and stockings and Laura Ashley came off”—another ooooo now, of a different tone—“there were new rules. Rules about—you guessed it—sex.
“Of course we didn’t call it that—we were good, wholesome, middle-class Americans. We called it making love. It wasn’t sex, or, God forbid…fucking!”
A pause here, for the hoots and cheers to die down.
“No, we made love. And we did it by the book—his book. He undressed me. And then he undressed himself. And then I had to stimulate him in a manner that some of you girls are probably familiar with”—a titter—“and then I lay on my back, and then he saddled up and took me for a ride.”
Booooo, went the crowd….
“Aw, don’t worry, girls. I kind of liked it, a little. I figured that’s what sex—sorry, making love—was all about. And then something happened. I had a daughter.
“I loved that little baby girl with all my might. I suppose I felt a little guilty, because I’d been a little bit dissatisfied with my marriage, despite having all the advantages: a nice house, a nice car, and these lovely clothes. So I decided to make up for it by loving my little daughter more than any mother had ever loved a child. And let me tell you something, girls, I did. I did love her, and I still do. She grew up into a beautiful young woman, and we sent her away to college—a place very much like this. And then I went to visit her. It was parents’ weekend, and my husband had too much work to come along. But I was just a housewife, so off I went to parents’ weekend. And do you know what I found?”
A murmur of expectant huh-uhs.
“I found that my beautiful daughter had cut off her beautiful hair! And had gotten a ring in her nose. And was dressed like a man! And I said to her, What has happened to my beautiful daughter? And she sat me down and said, Mom, brace yourself, I have to tell you a few things about me that you don’t know.
“I didn’t think it was possible, girls. There was nothing I didn’t know about my daughter. But it turns out I was wrong. Over the next two days, I learned that my daughter was a lesbian—and that, not only was she something different from what I believed, but so was sex. And so was marriage. And so was I. You see, my own daughter told me that sex didn’t have to be fine—it could be wonderful. And it didn’t have to be…with a man…either.”
Applause. Hoots. Stomps.
“My own daughter made me realize that I was a lesbian, too. And it wasn’t long before I’d left old hubby and all his megabucks behind, and I hit the road with my own brand of heart-to-heart girl-to-girl talk. And along the way, I learned a few things that even my daughter, the lesbian, didn’t know.”
Behind her, the curtain lurched, and parted, and the stage opened up to reveal a long, low table covered with jars, bottles, boxes, and devices of diverse and unusual design. To the right there was a clothing rack, where garments hung from metal hangers, and to the left was a simple wooden chair upon which a small black woman sat, placid and expressionless, her dark clothes barely distinguishable from her skin. Sally Streit’s arm rose in presentation, and she turned upstage and began to walk—and then she stopped.
She turned around again, to face the audience. On her face was a devilish grin. “By the way—I changed one other thing, too,” she said. “I got rid of my costume.” And with one fluid motion, she grabbed her Laura Ashley dress and tore it open, and buttons flew in every direction (girls in the front row, like groupies, fell over themselves to scoop them from the floor), and beneath the dress was revealed a black leather brassiere and black leather panties, and garters, and a second tattoo, etched directly into Sally Streit’s smooth, flat belly, depicting an arrow-pierced heart with the word MOM in the middle.
Some getup, Ruth thought—but the woman’s body itself was more of a costume than the clothes were, all its feminine attributes ballooned to cartoon size, the hips and breasts, the watermelon thighs, the narrow waist which nonetheless was probably several sizes larger than Ruth’s. But as Sally Streit stood at center stage, her fists in the air, Ruth had to admire the chutzpah of this whole operation, the way she had given these girls exactly what they wanted, confirmation that something as prosaic as their sexual orientation—or even their support of the expression of people’s sexual orientation—was in fact a kind of rebellion, a way of distancing themselves from their parents, their teachers, their problematic innermost selves. It was this that they applauded now, madly, as Sally Streit waved her fists in the air—their differentness, their separateness from the world. Their rejection of it.
Yes, it was what they wanted. But it wasn’t what they needed. What they needed was to get the hell out of here, to go home and read a book and look in the mirror and think. Instead, the very fears and anxieties—entirely justified ones—that they ought to have been addressing were being washed away in this deluge of positive reinforcement and carnal pleasure. Ruth crossed her skinny arms over her own meager bosom and shook her head—just like a mean old woman! Well, so be it. The world needed mean old women.
Sally Streit moved around to the back of her table, pressed her palms to its surface, and waited for the furor to die down. Her shoulders heaved as she inhaled and exhaled, and she nodded, never losing that wide, self-satisfied grin. And when the room had at last grown quiet, she slapped the table with both hands, held them out, palms-up, and said, “Who in this room can tell me the difference between a dildo and a vibrator?”