Tuesday July 28th, 2009

Dispatch from a Failed Revolution


Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese
Harper Perennial, 608 pp., $14.99

Of all the mass utopian notions of the twentieth century, the sexual revolution was both the most spectacularly successful and, in the end, the most thwarted. Whereas most political or spiritual or cultural movements, from Communism to Esperanto to est, came and went and left the Western sensibility not too far from where it started, a time traveler direct from 1959 would stare slackjawed at the sexual landscape of today, both in its deep fundamentals (the acceptance of homosexuality, the shift in gender roles) and in its showy surfaces, the frankness with which we discuss and display carnal matters in public.

And yet measured against the dreams (certainties, even) of its principled adherents — as a contemporary reader is reminded throughout Gay Talese’s stupendous 1981 book Thy Neighbor’s Wife, recently reissued by Harper Perennial — the Sexual Revolution remains unfinished and seemingly unfinishable. Shame in sex was not vanquished. Monogamy was not proved an unnatural construct. Indeed, if sexual behavior has liberalized during the past fifty years, sexual attitudes have arguably become more conservative, with belief in a single, destined “soul mate” now the moony norm. Talese’s book was seen as unforgivably sordid in its day (for its reportorial methods as well as for its subject matter), but today Thy Neighbor’s Wife is fascinating for how tragic it all seems, how unfulfilled the expectations of so many of its protagonists ultimately remained.

Talese builds his book around three interwoven narratives. The first is about pornography in America, with a particular focus on the orbit around Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, but with profitable detours into history, politics and constitutional law. (It should be noted that this pornography narrative is indeed one of outright triumph, of complete legalization and nearly complete cultural acceptance, a victory already definitively won before Talese began his reporting.) The second, briefest thread is about erotic massage parlors, which operated quasi-openly in New York during the 1960s and 1970s but were soon driven far underground, where at present they remain. Much of the lore around Thy Neighbor’s Wife stems from the fact that New York magazine, in 1973, discovered that Talese was actually managing such a massage parlor as part of his journalistic immersion.

The third narrative, and the heart of the book, is about non-monogamous living, and specifically about the growth of a single group-sex community in California. One hesitates to give away too many details of it, so adroitly and suspensefully does Talese mete them out. The tale begins like a film noir, really: John Bullaro, an insurance salesman in the Los Angeles office of New York Life, meets Barbara Cramer, a talented new recruit, and that confluence of city, profession and female name makes it hard not to imagine them as Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, especially as she goes on to seduce him toward a purpose he cannot fathom at first. The sinister air that clings to the story as it unfolds — as John and Barbara’s respective spouses, and then more couples, enter the scene — is itself evidence of how far we haven’t come in the intervening years; stories about non-monogamous love are still stories we very much expect to end in tears, and perhaps even blood.

Thy Neighbor’s Wife is legendary for the marital transgressions that Talese himself committed in its creation, first as a massage-parlor customer, then as a manager, and later as a near-resident of the Sandstone Retreat, the southern California destination where John and Barbara wind up. A reporter today, no doubt, would have flaunted his role throughout, and probably brought along a film crew, too, Sacha Baron Cohen-style. Talese’s self-presentation, by contrast, is understated and incredibly satisfying. In a book composed largely of chapter-length narratives revolving around the perspective of a single character, he simply leaves the last chapter for himself, telling his own story in the third person, just like the others. That might sound like a stagy reveal, but one is grateful, in retrospect, that Talese held back just how intimate (in all senses of that word) he got with his material. 

As Talese notes in his contemporary afterword, the reversals brought on by Reaganism and AIDS have been offset somewhat by the rise of the Internet, where smut is trafficked in liberally and furtive sex readily arranged. But one can’t help but feel that, at least to the principled 1970s libertines of the Sandstone Retreat and beyond, this would seem like an unsatisfying outcome: a culture where monogamy is everywhere espoused but then undercut surreptitiously, through a Houellebecqian online marketplace that satisfies sexual preferences as efficiently and mechanically as a stock exchange. There is no longer a dream of sexual progress. To experience a culture in which a fundamental restructuring of sexual relations seemed not merely plausible but inevitable and imminent, you today must carry to bed not thy neighbor’s wife but Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Odds are you will find it a more entertaining and far less complicated companion.

Bill Wasik is a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, and the author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

Mentioned in this review:

Thy Neighbor’s Wife
Double Indemnity