I can’t use the word when I’m writing for the Guardian’s web site, so I decided this week to write about journalistic ethics there instead. But I’m still interested in sex. Earlier this week I read three widely different novels by good writers. All were ‘genre’ fiction. Two of them bracket Philip Pullman territory very effectively. Jolie Blon’s Bounce, a crime novel set in Louisiana, is the most clearly theological novel I have read in years — certainly the most theological thriller since Graham Greene. The most unspeakable villain, the emissary of evil, is called ‘Legion’, and sometimes speaks in the tongues of diabolical possession. He is killed by an angelic, homeless drifter — or perhaps he isn’t: the body is recovered without any bullet wounds but bootless and burnt as if it had been struck by lightning, and surrounded by drowned swine. The drifter (who goes by Sal Angelo) walks into the woods and disappears.
The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford was an impulse purchase in Fopp, the paperback CD shop. I know his work because of two remarkable poems in the Nielsen Hayden Empire, one sparked by this story of mine. I wanted to know more, and I’m glad I did. It’s an astonishingly assured piece of alternative history, with characters one cares about. The mix of high mediaevalism with a little magic is very reminiscent of the good bits of Pullman, though the anti-Christian bias is more general and more pagan: Pullman’s Church is recognisably a protestant atheist fantasy, descended from the Reformation’s horror of priestcraft and the Inquisition; Ford simply has Julian the apostate triumph, and the Christians reduced to a savage and fanatical guerrilla sect in the badlands of the Scottish border.
Be Cool is just old Uncle Elmore whisking a piece of magic out of nowhere, a book whose plot turns round a movie producer’s search for a plot and characters in his own adventures. In lesser hands this would be a recipe for ballsaching pretentiousness and boredom. It’s certainly less rich than Jolie Blon’s Bounce but I hurried quite entranced to the end.
Now, all these are modern novels, so all the sympathetic characters must have sex — not even being dead can stop them, in the case of Ford’s German vampire. You just know, anyway, in any James Lee Burke novel, that at some stage a compassionate woman with large, pale breasts will climb on top of the hero and make him feel much better. This has happened in every book since The Lost Get Back Boogie. Some things do change: the heroes are now sober when they’re mounted, and the heroine’s bazongas less extravagant; but it remains true that in these books a woman in the missionary position is not sincere.
In John M. Ford’s book, the sex is mostly off-stage, and achy. This is better, though rather sad. But it doesn’t add very much to our knowledge of the characters involved. If anything, it turns them more into types. Perhaps that’s what interest him: he has apparently spent a lot of time writing role-playing games, though it’s possible that these are simply more lucrative than the alternatives.
It’s the old master who gets it right. For years and years Elmore Leonard couldn’t do women and wasn’t much good at sex, either. Now, this book is a bit too filmic for my tastes: the hero’s gimmick of imposing his personality on people by saying ‘look at me’ worked better when he was a loan shark than a Hollywood producer. But the sex scenes are a master class in showing character in bed. For the ultimate transgressive intimacy, his heroine pulls from her bedside table an ashtray which the couple share in the middle of the bed while they smoke and talk. No further acts are specified, and none need be. Perhaps you need to be 75 before you can write so clearly about real people having real sex.