Going Down

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'Going Down' by Jay Schaefer

By Stephanie Zacharek
October 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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As shocking as the news may be to the Republican right, certain factions of the American people and much of the media, oral sex wasn't invented in the Oval Office sometime in 1996. No, it's at least five years older than that, its origins having been traced to a migrant worker's shanty in the one-horse burg of Blowtown, on the other side of the tracks where people (most of them registered Democrats) just don't know any better than to put their mouths on the private parts of others.

But now, a pert little volume has arrived on the scene, presenting new evidence that the tradition of oral sex may stretch back even further than that -- who knew? "Going Down: Lip Service From Great Writers" is a collection of writings on the joys of pearl diving and cone honing that includes material from late-19th century scribes like Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris as well as more recent entries from the likes of John Updike and Philip Roth. Women doing men, men doing women, men doing men, women doing women: Everybody's doing it in "Going Down," almost all of them having a mighty fine time, and nobody's embarrassed about it at all.


The best entries in "Going Down" are the ones that are out-and-out pulp, shamelessly and unapologetically hedonistic, like the bawdy excerpt from Erica Jong's "Fanny" in which Fanny, disguised as a man, has her way with a cutie-pie chambermaid. An excerpt from "Teleny," an anonymous novel attributed to Wilde, is a playland of sensuous camp, funny and florid but also a little bit touching, considering how discreet gay men (and lesbians) of Wilde's time were forced to be. In "Teleny," when two men finally consummate their love, it's in a room with puffy white quilted walls, curly lamb's fleece on the floor and a big polar-bear skin thrown over a couch: "In an instant I was not only stark naked, but stretched on the bear-skin, whilst he, standing in front of me, was gloating upon me with famished eyes." Later, the two share a modest repast of goose-liver pbte, partridge and truffle shavings: "All these delicacies were served in dainty blue old Delft and Savona ware, for he had already heard of my hobby for old majolica." (Fiestaware hadn't been invented yet.)

"Going Down" is less successful when it tries to be high-minded instead of simply joyous. "The Woman on the Dunes," by Anaos Nin, reads like nothing more than a fluttery attempt to shock and titillate, a bit of nonsense in which a woman recalls how she was once taken from behind by a stranger as she watched an execution. (Ho-hum, been there, done that.) And in Harold Brodkey's leaden "Innocence," a man worries so much about bringing his partner to orgasm ("Any attempted act confers vulnerability on you, but an act devoted to her pleasure represented doubled vulnerability since only she could judge it; and I was safe only if I was immune or insensitive to her; but if I was immune or insensitive I could not hope to help her come ...") that you wish you could just tell him to stop thinking and start licking.

But especially in these troubled times of ours, you can't blame "Going Down" for trying to confer a little respectability on one of the greatest pleasures known to man- and womankind. As Updike writes, "Mouths ... are noble. They move in the brain's court. We send our genitals mating down below like peasants, but when the mouth condescends, mind and body marry." Oral sex isn't universal in the animal kingdom. Birds don't do it, bees don't do it -- but you can bet that if they had lips, they would.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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