Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Irving Wallace's The Celestial Bed

I picked up a copy of prolific author Irving Wallace's 1987 novel The Celestial Bed at a used bookstore for three dollars. It looked like it would be a mindless fun read, and for three bucks who can go wrong?

The Celestial Bed was great fun. Because this is one of the most pornographic books which I have read in a long time.

It's the story of Dr. Arnold Freeberg a sex therapist who seeks to cure his patients of their sexual disfunctions through the use of live sex surrogates. A sex surrogate is somebody who, under direction from the therapist, has sex with you and helps you to overcome whatever your problem is.

Irving Wallace (1916-1990)

First, Dr. Freeberg and his sex surrogate, Gayle, are run out of Arizona under the threat of prosecution for prostitution. Under assurance by his lawyer that therapy using surrogates is legal in California, Dr. Freeberg sets up shop in a suburb of Los Angeles. He gets a bunch more surrogates together including a male surrogate for the occasional female patient.

A sex crazed fundamentalist preacher gets his buddy, the politically ambitious District Attorney, to agree to arrest and prosecute Dr. Freeberg and Gayle. But first they send in Chet, a reporter suffering from pre-mature ejaculation, undercover to gather evidence. You get the idea, this a bad soap opera. It's so bad it's positively wonderful.

The Celestial Bed has just enough real information about the history and practice of sex therapy to make the reader feel like he has learned something and not feel guilty about all the titillating graphic sex. The characters are basically cartoonish caricatures. Like Tony, the owner of a chain of Italian restaurants, who launders money for the mob, and likes sex one way: fast, with none of that wimpy lovie dovie stuff. Tony's girlfriend, Nan, is frigid and seeks help from Dr. Freeberg. When Tony finds out that some other guy is banging his girl, somebody's got to die.

The Celestial Bed is definitely not great literature. For a bit of harmless raunchy amusement, however, it's good for a few laughs. It fascinated me thinking about how much the world has changed since the late '80s when this book is set. There were no cell phones, the characters have to stop at the gas station and use a pay phone, there was no fax and no internet (they have to go to the copy shop to xerox reports and then have the copies sent over by courier, how quaint!), and there was no Viagra or Cialis (they have to try to cure impotence the old fashioned way without drugs).

It reminded me how old and dated I am. I was a college undergraduate when this book came out. I wish that we could roll the world back to those times. I guess it's just natural to be nostalgic for the era in which you grew up. This old pot-boiler reminds me of those good times.

Friday, August 27, 2010


In trying to catch up on my reading, I just finished Graham Greene’s classic Brighton Rock first published in 1938. The Heart of the Matter left me unsettled, but I really don’t know what I think about this book.

The title refers to hard candy sold at the beach in the town of Brighton in England. Brighton Rock is the story of a teenage gangster named Pinkie Brown, his hapless girlfriend Rose, and a busybody named Ida Arnold. Sound like a bizarre plot? Well, Brighton Rock is a bizarre book.

The plot of Brighton Rock is readily available elsewhere on the internet so I won’t bother everyone with it here. What I want to focus on are the much heralded theological aspects of the novel. Brighton Rock is considered to be one of Greene’s “Catholic Novels,” the others of which are The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory. Although Greene habitually throws in some reference to the Church or Catholicism in his thrillers and “entertainments,” like the daughter who goes to Catholic school and says her rosary in Our Man in Havana.

Greene has said that when he started writing Brighton Rock he intended it to be a conventional thriller or detective story, hence the exciting opening chapter which describes a chase and a murder. The novel’s famous opening line sets the stage for what follows:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Hale is indeed murdered. At Hale’s sparsely attended funeral, the Anglican priest mouths the platitudes of modern religion of the “I’m OK, You’re OK, God’s OK” type:

‘Our belief in heaven,’ the clergyman went on, ‘is not qualified by our disbelief in the old medieval hell. We believe,’ he said, glancing swiftly along the smooth polished slipway towards the New Art doors through which the coffin would be launched into the flames, ‘we believe that this our brother is already at one with the One.’ He stamped his words like little pats of butter with his personal mark. ‘He has attained unity. We do not know what that One is with whom (or with which) he is now at one. We do not retain the old medieval beliefs in glassy seas and golden crowns. Truth is beauty and there is more beauty for us, a truth-loving generation, in the certainty that our brother is at this moment re-absorbed in the universal spirit.’

It astounds me that Greene was already able to poke fun at New Age babble like this in the late 1930's. This kind of stuff sounds good but has no real content. This is not a religion that a person will give his life for.

Ida Arnold, who was a woman that Hale picked up in an attempt to avoid being killed, becomes obsessed with finding Hale’s killer and bringing him to justice. Ida represents the modern person. She has no religious beliefs to speak of, she just believes in “right and wrong.” However, Ida finds no fault in anything which brings her pleasure. Ida sees nothing wrong with casual sex, for instance. “It’s natural” she says, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

“She wasn’t religious. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped and little inept voices speaking plaintively of flowers.”

So while “the good guys” in this novel are not religious, “the bad guys” are very religious. Hale’s killer Pinkie was reared as a Roman Catholic, sings parts of the Mass to himself, and believes in all of the doctrines of the Church. Outside of the fact that Pinkie is also an evil psychopathic killer, he’s not a bad bloke.

Pinkie believes in Hell and knows that when he dies in a state of mortal sin that he will certainly go to it. In the back of his mind, Pinkie hopes that he’ll be able to make a confession and be granted absolution before his death. If Pinkie dies and goes to Hell in the meantime, well, as they said in The Godfather, it ain’t personal, it’s just business.

Pinkie kills Hale for being involved with the murder of the gang leader Kite. Then he kills a member of the gang named Spicer so that Spicer can’t talk. Pinkie seduces the hapless Rose, a 16 year old waitress in a greasy spoon who can give incriminating testimony against him, and convinces her to marry him.

Rose is also a Roman Catholic. Before their civil marriage ceremony, Rose goes off to confession but then realizes that marrying Pinkie in a civil ceremony outside the Church is a mortal sin so it doesn’t make any difference anyway. Rose and Pinkie are very moral in a bizarre kind of way. Rose knows that Pinkie is a murderer, but makes a conscious decision to go to Hell with him.

Although neither Pinkie or Rose believe that their civil marriage is valid in the eyes of God, they refrain from sex until they are married. In fact, Pinkie has a revulsion of the entire idea of sexual intimacy from listening to his parents make love through the thin walls of a poor tenement apartment. Pinkie says that listening to his parents in their bedroom disgusted him so much that he swore he would become a priest. However, when the time comes on the wedding night, Pinkie overcomes his disgust and does his duty.

Since Rose is convinced that she is going to Hell by living in sin with Pinkie anyway, she is ready to commit the ultimate mortal sin by taking her own life when Pinkie asks her to. Rose winds up throwing the gun she is supposed to kill herself with away and Pinkie accidentally splatters acid all over his face (in grim preview of where his soul is headed) before he plunges over a cliff and dies to avoid capture by the police.

If any of the above makes sense to you, then you may be either (1) a deranged lunatic, (2) a Graham Greene fan, (3) a Catholic, or (4) all of the above.

Greene seemed to be obsessed with mortal sin and damnation. This led George Orwell to famously opine that Greene apparently viewed Hell as an exclusive high class nightclub open only to Catholics.

I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading Brighton Rock, but it certainly provided much food for thought. Graham Greene was a one of a kind author. It may just be that Brighton Rock is a great work of literature.

Pinkie & Rose in a film version of Brighton Rock

Graham Greene

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Heathen Valley

Heathen Valley, first published in 1962 by the noted playwrite Romulus Linney, is a beautiful book which deserves a far wider readership than it has enjoyed.

The novel is the story of Episcopal Church Deacon William Starns who is sent by the Anglican-Catholic Bishop of North Carolina to establish a mission in the far reaches of the Appalachian Mountains.

The book traces Starns life from his early childhood until his death. Starns was born in poverty in the Mountains, becomes a drifter, kills a man, goes to prison and escapes, and finally is hired by the kindly Bishop as a janitor in the Cathedral Church in Raleigh. After being rescued from alcoholism by the Bishop, Starns undergoes a profound conversion experience. After an experienced Episcopal minister and his wife fail in establishing a Mission Station in the mountains, Starns is ordained as a Missionary Deacon to the mountain people. Eventually the Bishop attempts to found an Anglican Religious Order at the Mission Station.

There is much human drama in this novel which is well written and beautifully told. There are also many horrific episodes and some graphic depictions of sexuality. The descriptions of the Mountain culture and the natural beauty of the Appalachia are wonderful.

For Anglican groupies, the novel also deals with the Evangelical verses Anglican Catholic divide in the Episcopal Church. The novel is very loosely based upon the real story of North Carolina Episcopal Bishop Levi Stillman Ives who eventually left the Episcopal Church and converted to Catholicism. The character of Starns is based upon Deacon William West Skiles who established the Valle Crucis Mission Station in Western North Carolina in the 1850s.

Heathen Valley is a great work of literature which deserves to be read.