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How To Go On A Nationwide Book Tour And Not Get Laid

The author of the sexed up "My Life in Heavy Metal" recounts his infamously sexless promotional tour.
I: In which the author anticipates nookie

On the eve of my first coast-to-coast book tour, my pal -- I'll call him Wilhelm -- took me aside for a little literary man-to-man: "The last time I went out on the road it was crazy, dude. Women every night. They just come up to you. They offer themselves."

It is important to note that Wilhelm is a poet. And when a poet tells you he's getting that much play, well ... you can pretty much draw your own conclusions.

What's more: I had written a book of short stories -- "My Life in Heavy Metal" (Grove, 2002) -- with enough erotic content to convey the impression (however mistaken) that I know my way around the female anatomy.

And so, for the first time in many years of traveling, I packed condoms, four varieties, in their bright, hopeful little wrappers, affixed with all those salacious buzzwords -- ribbed, lubricated, extra-sensation -- which have the effect, even now, back in my lonely writer cage, of giving me semi-wood.

II. In which the author ... not

But, see, that's just not how the road worked for me. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I'm kind of goofy-looking. Or that my stories tend to be about sexual disaster. Or perhaps Wilhelm is simply mas macho than I.

I sure never experienced the carnival of casual sex he so blithely described. What I found was that women (and men) come to readings seeking an intellectual, creative connection. And while this isn't always incompatible with sexual adventurism, it tends to diminish the chances for a quickie in the self-help section.

In my case, there was also a logistical issue to consider, one best represented by the following equation: no hotel = no coochie. Yes, to help save money, I stayed with friends. And friends don't let friends fuck drunk.

Besides which, there's something indisputably scummy about using your cachet as an artist to hit on a fan. I know it's a timeworn tradition and all, one of the perks of the biz. But half my stories are about jerks who use sex to primp their frail egos. (This, come to think of it, might also help explain the dearth of fawning bachelorettes.)

III. In which the author addresses the, uh, ejaculation issue

One of the things that became apparent as I read my work aloud is that people tend to get hung up on the sex. As soon as someone starts talking blowjobs, the crowd just freezes. This was especially true when I read the title story, which includes the following passage:
Gradually, her legs sagged to the bed. Her pelvis vaulted into the air. I followed her up, pressed my tongue harder, and suddenly there was a warm liquid coming out of her, a great gout of something sheeting across my cheeks, down my chin, splashing onto the comforter.
The first time I read this scene, the ladies in the front row looked like they'd been bopped in the back of the head with Ron Jeremy's manmeat.

The first question I got from audiences was, almost invariably: "Have you ever had sex with a woman who ejaculates? (Or: "How much of your work is autobiographical?", which is just a wimpier way of asking: "Have you ever had sex with a woman who ejaculates?")

My basic response to this question was: yeah, I did. But that's not really the point. Sex is just the strange chemistry and plumbing of our bodies. I'm far more interested in the emotions that live beneath the thrashing.

Still, the issue wouldn't die. In Minneapolis, a reviewer named Ann Bauer called my rendering of the female anatomy "woefully inaccurate," setting off a tsunami of protest. One women (God bless her) wrote in to confess that she gushed, was proud to be a gusher, and expressed what I would consider a charitable pity for Bauer.

No less an authority than the New York Times offered the following in-depth analysis of my narrative strategy: "The thing about Almond's stories is that his characters like to have sex. Really like to have sex."

Yes, Virginia, and often with their clothes off.

IV. In which the author talks cock

For the most part, I think, people who came to hear a story managed to suss out that the sex wasn't really the point, that my characters have a tendency (like many of us) to throw their bodies before their hearts.

But then every so often, I'd get a question like this: "Why do men always write about their penises?" -- a question of such dazzling sophistication that I'd be forced to review my basic understanding of the Western literary canon.

Homer? Dante? Milton? Cock. Cock. Cock. Faulkner? Cock. Forster. Pure cock. "Crime and Punishment"? Yeah, come to think of it ... cock.

I should note that this question came from a woman, and my guess is that she thought she was being clever, in a kind of snarky feminist way. To me, though, her question was just sort of sad. Not how stupid it was, but the way in which it revealed how embarrassed folks still are about the human body and its desires.

I mean, here we are in a culture that has appropriated sex as its chief marketing tool. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting some naked stick figure in lousy mascara. And yet most of us are still freaked when it comes to a serious contemplation of our genitalia. But what the hell else should writers write about? We think about our pussies and cocks all the time. We admire them. We worry about them. We stroke them. We press them against strangers. They take up a hell of a lot of psychic space. (Need this be mentioned: Half of the World Wide Web is devoted to the display of genitalia in action.)

And yet somehow, whenever genitals are attached to actual emotions or thoughts, they become dangerous. They threaten to distract us from the product.

This is why Hollywood, as a big for-instance, has such an abnegating relationship with sex. It will show us everything but the jewels, in scenes that are crafted to excise all emotional content from the frottage.

V. In which the author considers a career in porn

Fortunately, there are still pockets of the country where a healthier attitude survives. In North Carolina, I stayed with my pal Sean, who works at Phil Harvey Enterprises. PHE, for those of you who don't know, is one of the nation's premier purveyors of pornography and sex toys. It is located in a quaint little industrial park, which Phil himself built on the outskirts of Hillsborough.

The PHE nerve center is housed in a nondescript building just past the artificial lake with the geese. It's full of the standard corporate stuff: cubicles, workers hunched before computer monitors, bulletin boards with perky blood-drive announcements.

Only when you take a closer look do you start to see the nature of the office tchotchkes: dildos, photos of porn stars, the odd butt plug.

One of Sean's jobs is to write the blurbs that go on the movie boxes. This requires him to watch half a dozen movies a day, fast-forwarding through the sex scenes so he can get a sense of each film's deeper ambiance and setting. The porn no longer arouses him, he says, though given that he's heterosexual, the gay stuff is still a little tough to watch. (He'd just finished up "Ass Angels 3" when I visited.)

Sean's tour of the facility included the administrative offices of PHE's film division, which does not house an actual studio -- the movies are shot in LA -- but did include two women cheerfully talking PTA politics and splicing money-shot scenes together.

PHE's warehouse is 40,000 square feet and contains, in addition to videos and DVDs of every possible stripe, the largest selection of sex toys in the world. Sean was quite excited, on the day I visited, about a new device that, when affixed to the end of one's tongue, aids in cunnilingus.

Here's the coolest thing about PHE: Phil Harvey himself is a raging humanitarian. He's a former president of the ACLU who funnels a large portion of his profits toward promoting safe sex in the Third World.

That's right: all us wankers over here in suburban America who are ordering Phil's products so we can stroke off into napkins -- we're the ones funding the fight against STDs and unwanted pregnancies abroad.

It's enough to make me love America, just for a minute.

VI. In which the author (finally) sees one of his fans buck naked and writhing

This was in Portland, where a striking platinum blonde walked up before my reading and introduced herself. She told me she was a friend of my pal Jane and that she did an act with music, and invited me to come see her show after the reading.

I knew from Jane that this woman had gone to Williams (possibly the most uptight college in the entire country), that she was "a genius" and a social activist. I naturally assumed she was some kind of performance artist.

Nope.

By the time my pals and I walked into the club, Jane's friend was gone, replaced by a creature named Viva Las Vegas, a heartbreakingly limber and uniformly tan stripper with a penchant for exotic yoga positions and a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. Without dwelling on particulars, I feel compelled to note that Portland allows full nudity in bars and that Viva appeared to have more than a passing familiarity with hair-removal products.

Fortunately, her club was not the kind where cokeheads and mouth-breathers prevail. It was a sort of local strip bar, with low-key regulars and women who clearly loved what they were doing.

Viva told me she'd been stripping for more than five years, that the freedom of expression was what hooked her -- though I can't imagine the money hurts, either. True to her role as an activist, Viva led a contingent of strippers to City Hall several months ago, to protest an attempt by the city council to place restrictions on her profession. The local media, predictably, had a field day.

Viva told me all this on her break. She gave me a little hug and wished me well. Then she leapt on stage and performed a heavy-metal set -- in honor of my book -- which featured a remarkably acrobatic version of "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."

VII. In which the author concedes defeat

When I talked with my (male) friends from the road, they wanted to know one thing: whether I was getting laid.

These friends had a great deal of difficulty expressing, in complete sentences, their disappointment when I reported to them that I was not.

"Dude, c'mon.... No-brainer, man.... Close the deal."

They had expected some juicy stories, after all -- and not the kind you read in some damn book. They wanted Penthouse Forum-type action. Exhibitionistic librarians. Swedish twins. A menage a trois (at least) with horny groupies.

Strangely enough, I did receive a few interesting e-mails over the next month or so. It seems that a number of my friends were reading my stories to their partners, using my book, in essence, as a kind of high-brow sexual aid.

After an initial period of confused envy, I've come around to liking this idea. I think it's just great, actually. So I've gotten in the habit of sending these folks a very special gift: one of my unused condoms.

Steve Almond's book, "My Life in Heavy Metal" (Grove, 2002), is available in stores now. Visit his Web site, www.stevenalmond.com, for information on upcoming readings. He can be reached at [email protected]
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