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Memphis Flyer Women On and Beyond the Verge

2 books, 2 views

By Leonard Gill and Susan Ellis

JULY 12, 1999: 

Who You Calling Virgin?

Pity Fortune but don't, as the world does, discount her. And understand this: That's Fortune pronounced Fortunée, rhymes with, as the lady will tell you, "have-your-say" and "flowers-in-May," or don't you, as the lady will scream in caps, READ FRENCH? Understand too that the novel in which Fortune Dundy stars is called Maiden (Quill/Morrow, 212 pp., $12), the author is Cynthia Buchanan, she wrote it in 1972, and it's set in 1970, the dog days, in other words, of the Summer of Love.

Understand at the outset as well that Fortune, age 30, is a freak of nature in the context of the swinging-singles scene (subdivision: Los Angeles) because she is ... A VIRGIN. Her virginity is both a cross and a victory: a cross under which she suffers mightily and mentally; a victory when it comes to outmaneuvering the sex-bomb babies and studly knuckleheads who make mincemeat of Fortune's pipe dreams. Mark those pipe dreams as stations of the cross on the road, then, to a kind of victory, but put the whole thing under the signpost that reads satire, exceedingly sharp, smart, still-fresh, still-funny satire that in 27 years has not lost one bit of its sizable bite. The publisher has done us a service by putting Maiden back into our hands this month and by putting us back in mind of the fact that not one of us is above being Fortunes too.

When we first meet with the lady she is in court, a self-convened court of her own broken-minded, broken-hearted making. (She is not being courted, never has been.) The judge, prosecutor, counsel, jury, "emcee" during the proceedings, which the author skillfully interweaves throughout the narrative, is Bert, as in Bert Parks "of the Misses America," a man, we're to believe Fortune believes, knows when and where to spot a sure winner (and a born loser) in the low-stakes sport of musical beds. As Buchanan presents her in a surrealistic opening chapter, Fortune is clearly half out of her head, "a little crazed," "a little abstract," "a fetish of herself" -- a truth-seeking soul lost but still on the lookout for "potential truthmongers" among the wash-outs she counts as her friends. Fortune's real tragedy, we also learn up front, is that "she had no idea how false she was," no matter how hard her heart's stayed true. But that's getting ahead of ourselves, and it's not the reason Fortune's on trial.

The charge? Murder. The crime? Passion. The twin defense? The Passion Myth and Fortune's notion of Courtly Love. The verdict? Guilty. The punishment? Hanging (as in, left up in the air), because, as Maiden spells it out from one screwy scene after another, this woman's been serving a life sentence from the moment she set foot in the Golden State and its ground-zero of singledom, Villa Dionysus, a complex of apartments "Where the Scene Gets Together" and where 2,000 horny souls make up the (often literally) Naked City. And what a bunch of zeros!

Take Fortune's roommate, the roommate from hell, Beverly "Biscuit" Besqueth ... please. A divorcée of 12 years, Biscuit may not be past her prime sexually but she's certainly past our or any sane person's patience immediately. This is a child-woman subject to uncontrollable fits if things don't go her way, whose upset uterus her boyfriend Milo refers to affectionately as Miss Grumpet (rhymes with strumpet), who routinely baby-talks Milo into every manner of submission, who repeatedly plants her heel into the last vestiges of Fortune's self-worth, and who has a nasty habit of reaching for the nearest kitchen utensil -- be it bread knife or barbecuing fork -- when the tables turn less to her satisfaction.

Milo, for his part, is half-Bozo/half-Bluto, and Biscuit's ex-husband, Samuel "Skip" Fritchey, is your standard-issue cad but late-blooming softie. Fortune is seduced by both (no surprise here), unsuccessfully as to the matter of the Big V (no surprise here either), to the minor disappointment of the former and the very bad luck of the latter.

Elsewhere in the boyfriend department, Fortune and we get: The Murray Caruthers Affair (a psychopath); The Jack Gandemutt Affair (a card-carrying woman-hater); The Ora "Rusty" Russell Affair (a non-male); and The Phil Petzinger Affair (a decent-enough guy who "peters" out when, for dear Fortune's sake, it's highly critical he not).

But let's forget for a moment this string of duds and talk professionally: Fortune's attempts to earn her keep, misguidedly understood by the lady herself as solid career moves. From demonstrating cake-decorating nozzles in a Westwood mall, to telemarketing for Gym 'n Trim ("California's foremost figure control and body center"), to door-to-door sales for the House of Circe cosmetics firm, Fortune does indeed have the gift of sparkling salesmanship -- and the misfortune of picking up on the deadest-beat jobs known to man (or woman).

That sparkling personality, though, can run ruthless when Fortune is up against the wall, as she so often is inside the cat cage that is Apartment B-12. If you've got the idea that Fortune can't give as good as she gets, you're mistaken. When it comes to snap-to one-liners and frosty put-downs, Fortune can skewer with the best of them, the best of them being, of course, Biscuit.

Author Cynthia Buchanan can skewer too when it comes to junk culture, '70s-style: the Dynel fall that crowns Fortune's head (and whose carefully mapped movements make it yet one more wigged-out character in this book); the clear-plastic box of a purse that contains as much as it reveals of Fortune's baggage; and a TV show called PAIR-OFF! (which, beyond the requirements of satire, Buchanan delivers as a virtual transcription of the idiocy that was The Dating Game).

Another sign of the times was the index and middle finger salute. Fortune makes the sign, if memory serves, twice: V for Victory? (Even Skip admits she was a soldier "brave in an unbrave milieu.") V for Virginity? Or is it a benediction, a general peace upon the likewise lovelorn, even unto the future lovelorn like last year's girl most likely not to succeed in love, Bridget Jones?

Bridget is Miss Dundy's legitimate offspring. And if fans thought Bridget Jones's Diary was an immaculately conceived blueprint for their own late-century hang-ups, you have Fortune's 30-year-old virginity to thank.

Bridget's author, Helen Fielding, needs reminding that Cynthia Buchanan in Maiden made one terrific midwife. Remind yourself too and have some fun while you're at it. -- Leonard Gill

Who You Calling Slut?

For Leora Tanenbaum, it's damned if you do but do it anyway.

At least that seems to be what she's saying in SLUT!: Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation (Seven Stories Press, 278 pp., $23.95). Tanenbaum was inspired to write the book after an article that she wrote for Seventeen about her experience of being so tagged drew the largest number of letters in the history of that magazine. Her thesis (in a nutshell): Girls are punished for having sexual feelings. Her proof (in addition to a lot of research): primarily, the 50 interviews of females ages 14 to 66 who went through hell because of their peers' harassment. Her solution? Girls suffering from this unwanted attention should record the abuse, tell an adult, and, if all else fails, sue.

The personal histories Tanenbaum provides are grim. Some of the girls were date-raped, gang-raped, or labeled slut simply for having big breasts. The boys these girls fooled around with may kiss and tell, but worse are the girlfriends who spread the word of some tryst (real or imagined) like a Britney Spears-loving Pony Express. Now throw in all the paradoxes a girl's got going against her -- if a girl does it she's bad, if a boy does it he's a stud; if she tries to act responsibly by getting birth control, she's loose; if she holds onto her virtue, she might lose the boy; TV, movies, magazines et al. are telling her to "just do it"; girls can't seem to muster any self-esteem; adults don't care. It adds up to a whole lot of confusion, and, for those who make a misstep and get branded a slut, misery (though many of the girls Tanenbaum interviewed said they found strength in their plight and were better women for it).

Tanenbaum's grasp of these complicated and convoluted aspects of a teen girl's life would be impressive for a college freshman flush from her first encounters with feminism. Tanenbaum, however, is a 29-year-old journalist. With all her research and interviews, she has the truth on her side. What she sorely lacks is perspective.

Her own story and her angle on it are clear illustrations. When Tanenbaum was in the ninth grade, a girlfriend asked her to call a boy (whom Tanenbaum had neither met nor seen) and ask him what he thought of Tanenbaum's girlfriend. The boy invited Tanenbaum to his apartment. She agreed, they made out for 10 minutes, he showed her the door, and then he called her friend. The friend responded by telling anyone who would listen that Tanenbaum was officially a slut. While she admits she wronged her friend, the author bristles at the memory of being ostracized for acting on her budding sexuality.

Here's the rub, the one Tanenbaum is determined not to acknowledge: Young girls do have a healthy sexuality, and it is unfair that boys with the same urges aren't weighted down by what society rules is or is not good behavior. But -- and this is a big but -- sex is an enormous responsibility and it has consequences. One consequence is being labeled a slut, and within the parameters of a ninth-grade definition of the term, Tanenbaum most certainly was one.

Tanenbaum is so busy defending a girl's right to be felt up that she doesn't seem to consider that girls may not be ready to act on their urges, that it's probably a good idea for them to wait until they have the emotional maturity to handle them. She also can't seem to acknowledge that sleeping around (for both girls and boys) is reckless. And her arguments are maddeningly of the "she doth protest too much" variety. Example: "All in all, I believe, Lewinsky does not deserve to be written off as a Melrose Place bimbo."

What, do tell, do we write her off as?

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