Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Among other things, Bentley Little is known for his ability to create, maintain, and intensify suspense through his narrative and descriptive skills; his inability to end his novels in a satisfactory (that is, satisfying) manner; and his inclusion of aberrant sex in his stories.
In this post, I take up the aberrant sex that is a recurring element in his fiction, citing a few examples from one of his more recent novels, The Vanishing (Signet, 2007); parenthetical numbers refer to the pages from which text is summarized or quoted. I also offer my take as to why Little is wont to include such material in his fiction. (Yes, it’s salacious and helps to sell his novels, but there’s more to it than that, I think.)
Little loses no time in describing his novel’s first instance of aberrant sex. Victor Lowry, the ne’er-do-well son of a self-made millionaire, picks up his sometime-girlfriend, Sharline. Although the couple has just had an argument (“they’d parted on bad terms last week after a very public fight”), Sharline seems as content to use Victor’s money as he is to use her body (she lives in an apartment, he in a mansion).
After their date, the narrator confides to the reader, Victor “took Sharline back to her apartment and did her quick and hard on the floor of the living room, finishing in” a fashion that he knows she does not “like.” Victor is more than inconsiderate. He uses women (as Sharline also uses him), and he does so in a contemptuous fashion, without regard to their feelings. When Sharline calls him a “bastard,” he smiles; her anger amuses and delights him, and the narrator declares that “he felt good, happy,” explaining that Victor’s sadistic streak is something of a sexual, if not marital, aid to him: “It helped him get off, doing things to women they didn’t like” (8).
Victor’s sadism makes him an unsympathetic character, so that when, a few pages later, he is murdered by his psychotic father, the reader may not condone the madman’s behavior, but he or she isn’t likely to feel much remorse for Victor, the “bastard” who has used his girlfriend with such indifference a few pages earlier. (Sharline is somewhat unsympathetic, too, for she is using Victor for his money, even as he is using her for sex, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated with the disdain and cruelty with which Victor treats her. He is the bigger culprit, so, when his father dispatches him, the reader is apt to feel that the sadistic son’s dispatch is not all that unfortunate an event.)
In chapter three of the novel, the reader is introduced to Arlene and her husband Stephen, who may or may not be having an affair; if he is, Arlene decides, she may or may not care: “Stephen called a few minutes later, promising to be home by dinnertime, but she knew that ‘dinnertime’ could mean anything between six and nine o’clock. She wondered idly if he was having an affair--then wondered if she cared” (24).
Although Little doesn’t go into detail about Stephen’s extramarital sexual escapades (if there are, indeed, any extramarital sexual escapades into which to go), but the suggestion of infidelity is another allusion to aberrant sexuality. It would be despicable if Stephen is cheating on his wife, but her casual indifference also rankles the reader, suggesting that she doesn’t have much regard for their marriage, for her husband, or for herself, her apathy painting her as a somewhat unsympathetic character. Perhaps she--or both she and her husband--will also be victims of whatever madness and mayhem Little has unleashed upon his characters.
Stephen returns home earlier than Arlene had expected, and, after dinner and a bit of television, he suggests that they “have a golden shower.” Although she offers token resistance to engaging in the act, it is obvious that “golden showers” are a routine part of the aberrant sex lives they share, and “Arlene,” the reader is told, “gave in, as she always did, and she drank water until she had to pee,” thereafter discharging the contents of her bladder over her husband “until he was completely soaked” and sexually excited. After he satisfies her by other means, she seats herself upon him, to “finish him off” with “a few quick, hard thrusts” which cause them to climax “together,” one in their ecstasy as they are in their degeneracy (27).
Their devil-may-care attitudes toward sex and one another are reflected in their son Kirk’s interest in casual, even anonymous, sex, as is seen by his attempt to pick up a woman in a nightclub rather than to stay for dinner at his parents’ house, despite the fact that his mother, having just returned from two weeks of vacation in France, has invited him to celebrate her return: “He scanned the bar and then positioned himself next to a tall dark beauty who was either alone, abandoned, or waiting for a friend.” (One almost fails to see the nonchalant way that the narrator includes “abandoned” in the list of possible explanations for the woman’s being by herself, a casualness that underscores the attitude that Kirk himself has toward casual sexual encounters with strangers.)
Unfortunately for the opportunistic Kirk, the woman is awaiting her boyfriend’s return: “Before he could get up the nerve to speak to her. . . her date returned from the bathroom and the two of them wandered off ins search of a table” (29). Had Kirk been able to “get up the nerve” sooner, the narrator suggests, perhaps he would have been able to persuade the “tall dark beauty” to leave with him rather than with her date. Faithfulness between lovers is not any more likely in a Little novel than it is in the actual world of American society, in which half of marriages end in divorce.
Kirk’s mother, far from being disappointed in her son’s decision to skip dinner with his parents, is delighted, because she suspects that he is skipping their dinner engagement in favor of keeping a rendezvous with a new lover:
“You knew your mother was coming home,” his dad said sternly.Kirk’s willingness to lie to his mother suggests, as does his willingness to pick up a woman who may be waiting for her date to return, the dishonesty at the core of his character, just as her participation in aberrant sexual behavior and her “delight” at the prospect that her son is meeting “someone new” may suggest Arlene’s own casual morality.
“I know, but it’s--”
“Someone new?” his mother asked, barely concealing her delight at the prospect.
“Yeah,” he lied (29).
Carrie Daniels, a social worker, introduced in chapter four of the novel, seeks to obtain medical benefits for Juan, a furry boy whose head and facial features resemble those of a llama enough for the superstitious to attribute his birth to his mother Rosalie’s fornication with beasts. Carrie’s supervisor, Sanchez, informs her that he has heard “secondhand” that, “to get the money to come to America,” Rosalie “worked in a. . . llama show, back in Mexico,” where “she had sex with animals while people watched” and became “pregnant by one” as a result, conceiving her son (37).
Although Rosalie scoffs at the explanation, declaring it “impossible,” she is disturbed by the story, and, when she sees a tabloid’s headline about Holly, a prostitute who gave birth to a “rhino boy,” she and a colleague investigate the story, stumbling upon a murder scene in which they find the dead body of the decapitated “rhino boy” and his mother, causing Carrie to believe “there really was a rhino boy” (49-50) and to wonder whether Rosalie and her son are also in danger from the same killer (51).
In this chapter, Little adds voyeurism, prostitution, and possible bestiality to his list of aberrant sexual behaviors and ties them to poverty and a need for money on the part of unskilled, but (in Rosalie’s case, at least) attractive young women who aspire to better lives.
Almost every chapter of the novel contains either references to, or full-fledged scenes involving, one sort or another of aberrant sex. Chapter five is no exception: a reporter receives a voice message from an oil company CEO who says he is suffering from satyriasis. It’s hard to say whether the executive is bragging or complaining, but the message itself is communicated in vulgar, rather than clinical, terms (56).
Whatever is happening in The Vanishing, the mystery of iniquity, as it were, involves sexual perversions, but these degenerate acts also serve other narrative purposes than simply setting up a mysterious chain of bizarre events. The allusions to sexual aberrations and the scenes that depict the characters involved in aberrant sexual behavior characterize the participants in such acts as unsympathetic, amoral, cruel, and unfaithful, just as such references and scenes depict contemporary American society and capitalism as unprincipled and indifferent to human suffering (indeed, businesses are depicted as seeking to capitalize upon human suffering, as in Rosalie’s and Holly’s cases)
For many modern men and women, sex has become something of a religion, and, in the perverted and degenerate forms that it takes in Little’s novels, The Vanishing included, such sex seems to symbolize the moral degeneracy and the spiritual dissolution out of which, ultimately, such behavior flows. It is a shorthand way of suggesting the sinfulness and impiety of modern humanity. The novel’s narrator suggests as much when he admits, concerning the conduct of one character, “This hadn’t been just a sex thing” (60), and, in reference to another character, explains:
Something was wrong with him. He didn’t know what it was, but he sensed that it was not something that could be cured by a psychiatrist. This was not the result of some childhood trauma or chemical imbalance [i. e., the problem’s etiology is neither environmental nor organic, or genetic]. It went deeper than that. This was something inexplicable and inhuman that had recently manifested itself from God-knew-where. And now was a permanent part of him (65).As the Catholic Online Encyclopedia observes,
Lust is said to be a capital sin. The reason is obvious. The pleasure which this vice has as its object is at once so attractive and connatural to human nature as to whet keenly a man’s desire, and so lead him into the commission of many other disorders in the pursuit of it. Theologians ordinarily distinguish various forms of lust in so far as it is a consummated external sin, e. g., fornication, adultery, incest, criminal assault, abduction, and sodomy. Each of these has its own specific malice--a fact to borne in mind for purposes of safeguarding the integrity of sacramental confession.Separated not only from God and nature, but also any sense of moral decency or even decorum, men and women are haunted, or even possessed, by idolatrous sensuality and demonic sexual deviance. Regardless of the shapes and appearances of the monsters in Little’s novels, sexual perversion--or, rather, what it symbolizes--the moral degeneracy that issues from the godlessness and idolatry of modern, secular society--is the true demon about which he writes, the nature of the human beast, unclothed by cultural pretenses and rhetorical rationalizations.