a still from the video trailer of Happyland
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.Â 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.Â 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.Â â€śAll right!â€ť she exclaimed, â€śAll right!!â€ť
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 warriorâ€™s.Â â€śWhat a crowd!â€ť 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.Â Sally Streit, feigning astonishment, put her hands on her hips and shook her head.Â Wow, her mouth said silently.Â Wow!!
When the applause began to die down, the â€śwowâ€ťs became audible, conversational, and Sally Streit breathed a sigh of exhaustion, and saidagain â€śWhatâ€¦aâ€¦crowd,â€ť before silence, more or less, finally fell over the auditorium.
â€śTake it off!â€ť 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.Â â€śYou donâ€™t like my dress?â€ť she demanded, and the room erupted in laughter.Â Clearly it was a much-uttered gag line…. The joke went on, melding into monologue: the shtick was underway.Â A rustle and exhalation filled the room as four hundred young women made themselves comfortable in their seats.
â€śI canâ€™t believe it, they donâ€™t like my dress!â€ť said Sally Streit, shaking her head.Â â€śDo you know how much I paid for this?Â Itâ€™s Laura Ashley!â€ťÂ A few chuckles.Â â€śAnd these are 100% genuine cultured pearls, and these stockings are pure silk, and these shoesâ€”well, donâ€™t get me going on the shoes!
â€śGirls, I used to dress like this everyâ€¦singleâ€¦day.â€ťÂ A murmur of astonishment.Â â€śBack in my youth, I used to be marriedâ€”thatâ€™s right, marriedâ€”to a prominent man, a television personality.Â He wasnâ€™t a bad man, or a mean man, but he expected things to be a certainâ€¦way.Â And one of those things, Iâ€™m sad to tell you, was me.
â€śOh, he loved me, I believe that, but along with his love came rules.Â He went shopping with me, to pick out my clothes.Â He was the one with the money, and so he decided how, when, and where it would be spent.Â He bought me these pearls, and this dress, and these shoes.Â And I was happyâ€”or at least I thought I was.Â I went to parties, to banquets, to events of every stripe, and this is how I dressed.Â And at night, when my husband and I came home from these parties, I got undressed the same way.Â By him.â€ť
An ominous ooooo of displeasure circled the auditorium, which Sally Streit tried without much enthusiasm to dismiss.Â â€śNow, now, it wasnâ€™t all that bad.Â He loved me, after all.Â But even once I was undressedâ€”once my pearls and stockings and Laura Ashley came offâ€ťâ€”another ooooo now, of a different toneâ€”â€śthere were new rules.Â Rules aboutâ€”you guessed itâ€”sex.
â€śOf course we didnâ€™t call it thatâ€”we were good, wholesome, middle-class Americans.Â We called it making love.Â It wasnâ€™t sex, or, God forbidâ€¦fucking!â€ť
A pause here, for the hoots and cheers to die down.
â€śNo, we made love.Â And we did it by the bookâ€”his book.Â He undressed me.Â And then he undressed himself.Â And then I had to stimulate him in a manner that some of you girls are probably familiar withâ€ťâ€”a titterâ€”â€śand then I lay on my back, and then he saddled up and took me for a ride.â€ť
Booooo, went the crowd….
â€śAw, donâ€™t worry, girls.Â I kind of liked it, a little.Â I figured thatâ€™s what sexâ€”sorry, making loveâ€”was all about.Â And then something happened.Â I had a daughter.
â€śI loved that little baby girl with all my might.Â I suppose I felt a little guilty, because Iâ€™d been a little bit dissatisfied with my marriage, despite having all the advantages: a nice house, a nice car, and these lovely clothes.Â So I decided to make up for it by loving my little daughter more than any mother had ever loved a child.Â And let me tell you something, girls, I did.Â I did love her, and I still do.Â She grew up into a beautiful young woman, and we sent her away to collegeâ€”a place very much like this.Â And then I went to visit her.Â It was parentsâ€™ weekend, and my husband had too much work to come along.Â But I was just a housewife, so off I went to parentsâ€™ weekend.Â And do you know what I found?â€ť
A murmur of expectant huh-uhs.
â€śI found that my beautiful daughter had cut off her beautiful hair!Â And had gotten a ring in her nose.Â And was dressed like a man!Â And I said to her, What has happened to my beautiful daughter?Â And she sat me down and said, Mom, brace yourself, I have to tell you a few things about me that you donâ€™t know.
â€śI didnâ€™t think it was possible, girls.Â There was nothing I didnâ€™t know about my daughter.Â But it turns out I was wrong.Â Over the next two days, I learned that my daughter was a lesbianâ€”and that, not only was she something different from what I believed, but so was sex.Â And so was marriage.Â And so was I.Â You see, my own daughter told me that sex didnâ€™t have to be fineâ€”it could be wonderful.Â And it didnâ€™t have to beâ€¦with a manâ€¦either.â€ť
Applause.Â Hoots.Â Stomps.
â€śMy own daughter made me realize that I was a lesbian, too.Â And it wasnâ€™t long before Iâ€™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.Â And along the way, I learned a few things that even my daughter, the lesbian, didnâ€™t know.â€ť
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.Â 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.Â Sally Streitâ€™s arm rose in presentation, and she turned upstage and began to walkâ€”and then she stopped.
She turned around again, to face the audience.Â On her face was a devilish grin.Â â€śBy the wayâ€”I changed one other thing, too,â€ť she said.Â â€śI got rid of my costume.â€ťÂ 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 Streitâ€™s smooth, flat belly, depicting an arrow-pierced heart with the word MOM in the middle.
Some getup, Ruth thoughtâ€”but the womanâ€™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 Ruthâ€™s.Â 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 orientationâ€”or even their support of the expression of peopleâ€™s sexual orientationâ€”was in fact a kind of rebellion, a way of distancing themselves from their parents, their teachers, their problematic innermost selves.Â It was this that they applauded now, madly, as Sally Streit waved her fists in the airâ€”their differentness, their separateness from the world.Â Their rejection of it.
Yes, it was what they wanted.Â But it wasnâ€™t what they needed.Â 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.Â Instead, the very fears and anxietiesâ€”entirely justified onesâ€”that they ought to have been addressing were being washed away in this deluge of positive reinforcement and carnal pleasure.Â Ruth crossed her skinny arms over her own meager bosom and shook her headâ€”just like a mean old woman!Â Well, so be it.Â 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.Â Her shoulders heaved as she inhaled and exhaled, and she nodded, never losing that wide, self-satisfied grin.Â And when the room had at last grown quiet, she slapped the table with both hands, held them out, palms-up, and said, â€śWho in this room can tell me the difference between a dildo and a vibrator?â€ť
Read what happens next in Part II!
Happyland is available as an e-book from Amazon.com.