November 14, 2007
Literary Greats of My Generation
My wife Karen is, apparently, an avid reader. I should have realized this sooner, because she is in a book club, except I didn't realize the ladies in the book club actually read anything.
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I have deduced after years of observing women that when they gather together they seem to do very little reading; they do, however, do an inordinate amount of talking. (Granted, I often observe women through peepholes or from the stairway below the one they are descending, but that's another story.)
Anyhow, Karen informed me she has a new favorite, Nabokov. "The goalie from the Maple Leafs?" I inquired. Actually, she meant Vladimir Vladimrovich Nabokov, the great Russian master who wrote nine books in his native language before switching to English.
Karen has read everything, and we even named our new parakeet "Nabokov" which is a healthy step forward from her first bird, "Booger."
"Have you ever read him?" she asked. I feigned dumbness, but, of course, as every good Catholic school boy of a certain age knows, I am quite familiar with at least one of his books, published in 1955: Lolita.
Lolita was a smut book. The problem was, since it was written by the great Nabokov, the world didn't quite know what to make of it, even though it was about a grown man having sex with a young girl. Finally, the Catholic Church issued its dreaded X rating, which meant it was a mortal sin to even look at the cover.
The rating meant the parish priests would visit our classrooms warning us of the danger of reading such wicked stuff. The irony is obvious looking back: some man who probably had sex with boys was warning us not to read a novel about a man who had sex with a girl. Go figure that logic.
"You're a writer, Rick. Who was your favorite writer, the person you drew inspiration from?" Karen asked. I mulled over the question. Growing up I has read all the classics . . . Classic Comic Books, that is. I laughed and cried when I read The Yogi Berra Story by Milton Shapiro, and who can forget the poignant Mickey Mantle Story by Gene Schoor. But I have to say, of all the literary marvels I enjoyed, the most talented writer of them all was Al Goldstein, the creator of Screw Magazine.
Before Screw, the Village Voice won grudging acceptance. It was not by any stretch pornographic, but it did contain ads for gay movies and bathhouses and a fairly graphic and extensive gay classified section. But the Voice also had a killer cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, and a great rock critic, Robert Christgau.
The Voice wasn't afraid to take on the city government, often doing deeply researched in-depth stories uncovering corruption and double standards that the other seven newspapers in the city wouldn't touch. In fact, I've tried to emulate the Voice's philosophy of digging out the truth here at The Independent, but most of my reporters drink far too much to take on such a project.
Growing up, "dirty magazines" were certainly no rarity. My older brother kept them under his bed, easy for me and my friends to find. Mom's vacuum would usually bring them to the fore, and they'd be unceremoniously discarded, only to be replaced by a new batch.
But they weren't "dirty" at all. They were magazines that contained nude or seminude pictures of very beautiful women posing innocently.
Being repressed Catholics, our minds were drawn to the taboo. If they told us we couldn't read it or watch it or do it, we did. Being a writer I quickly had my fill of the sports biographies, and turned to my big brothers' bookshelves on the other side of the room we shared. I particularly enjoyed adventures into the unknown realms, be it Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Dune by Frank Herbert, the beat poets of San Francisco, Allan Ginsberg, and of course, any forbidden smut we could get our hands on.
Screw was a welcome change from the airbrushed PG-rated nudity of the socially accepted Playboy magazine. One critic said the nudity in Al's magazine was "alarmingly frank," so graphic as to almost be repulsive. Goldstein, tongue firmly planted in cheek (though who's cheek was always the question), baited censors and the government, teased conservatives and the religious right, and flooded the newsstands with Screw which sold at its peak a staggering 500,000 copies per week.
While clergy, right-wingers, and all around decent folk blasted the fact Screw could be found on every newsstand, Goldstein basked in the glory.
"We lead the league in tastelessness. Our photographs are filthier and our stories more disgusting. We make no effort to be artistic," he boasted.
Goldstein was the first person to tout the film Deep Throat. When the movie went mainstream Screw gained credibility. It also published a legion of underground cartoonists before they became famous, most notably Robert Crumb. In the end Screw became Goldstein's bully pulpit, lambasting all who crossed him and attacking politicians he disliked or who disliked him.
Johnny "Wad" Holmes, the legendary porn star, was a favorite Goldstein muse. He appeared in thousands of movies and bedded 10,000 women before dying of AIDS in 1988. Goldstein wrote one of the great headlines ever authored: "Johnny: We Hardly Blew Ye."
By the mid-nineties all the lawsuits and the grudges starting catching up with Goldstein, and he eventually sold the magazine after circulation plummeted. Of course, with the advent of the Internet there really isn't anything shocking left to exploit anymore. Credit Goldstein for that.
Goldstein lives on. He is running for president as a bisexual even though, of course, he isn't one. In fact, he loves women, having been married five times. Nevertheless, he vows to become the first Gay in the White House if elected. For Goldstein it's all about shock value. His slogan is "Vote Goldstein, he's used to being on top."
He has spent all of his money and lives in a small flat in the city. But when his body of work is uncovered . . . well that's bad choice of words . . . reviewed, historians will find (besides a lot of exposed breasts) a rich wit, and a champion of the free press. A writer.
We don't need to name a bird after him; flipping him one would do nicely, though.