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The acclaimed debut collection of short stories by practicing psychiatrist Arlene Heymana work of “bliss that lifts right off the page.” (Dwight Garner, NYT)
A woman goes about certain rituals of sex with her second husband, sharing the bed with the ghosts of her sexual past. A beautiful young art student embarks on an affair with a much older, married, famous artist. A middle-aged woman struggles with the decline of her mother, once glamorous and still commanding; their fraught relationship causes unexpected feelings, both shaming and brutal. A man finds that his father has died while in the midst of extra-marital sex and wonders what he should do with the body. And a boy sits in his Calculus class, fantasizing about a schoolmate's breasts and worrying about his father lying in hospital, as outside his classroom window the Twin Towers begin to fall.
In this stunning, taboo-breaking debut, Arlene Heyman, a practicing psychiatrist, gives us what really goes on in people's minds, relationships, and beds. Raw, tender, funny, truthful and often shocking, Scary Old Sex is a fierce exploration of the chaos and beauty of life.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Pam Ward has performed in dinner theater, summer stock, and Off-Broadway, as well as in commercials, radio, and film. An experienced narrator, Pam has recorded many titles for the Library of Congress Talking Books program. She is the recipient of an AudioFile Earphones Award and the prestigious Alexander Scourby Award.
Table of Contents
The Loves of Her Life 1
In Love with Murray 23
At the Happy Isles 59
Night Call 133
Nothing Human 197
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Arlene Heyman
Death and aging weigh heavily on the minds of many of the characters in Arlene Heyman's debut story collection, Scary Old Sex. It's bookended by stories about older couples whose intimacies are complicated by creaky joints and CPAP machines, for whom "making love was like running a war," as she writes. "Plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously, there was no room for maverick actions lest the country end up defeated and at each other's throats." In between those stories, there's a May-September romance, a sixty-eight-year-old woman doing battle with her ninety-nine-year-old mother, and a doctor who dies in the arms of the nurse with whom he's having an affair.
Even so, Heyman, seventy-three, bristles a bit at the idea that there's an explicit thematic unity to the book. "There are very few books around, at least that I know of, that treat older people like full-fledged human beings," she says. "But I didn't intend to address a hole in the literature." Heyman began publishing fiction in her twenties and lived in writers' circles she had an affair with Bernard Malamud in the 1960s and remained friends with him until his death but soon shifted gears to medical school. Heyman now works as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City. So perhaps it's more correct to say that the connective tissue in Scary Old Sex is less our ever-failing, time-ravaged bodies than the absurdity of the emotions that well up inside them: She's expert at finding moments when characters express the taboo thought or the revealing non sequitur.
I spoke with Heyman recently via e-mail about our resistance to stories about the elderly, her relationship with Malamud, and the particular charm of our bodies in our later years. Mark Athitakis
The Barnes & Noble Review: Works of fiction that are as candid as this about aging are fairly thin on the ground, at least in American literature. Was that absence something you wanted to address?
Arlene Heyman: I'm not a sociologist. I just know that whenever I go to the movies and there's an older couple, they are always represented as cute or dire. You know that movie, [Michael Haneke's] Amour? There's a couple that's been together all their lives. The woman is a concert pianist and a teacher. She develops a terrible stroke and then another stroke. She ends up speechless. And somehow, the two of them are totally isolated. They don't pull in anybody else.
I walked out of that movie and I felt I had to warn everybody who was over sixty or seventy not to go. I always walk out of these movies feeling, "Oh God, this is not the way I see it." Why are these people being denatured? Like old age is a dreadful thing where you just have no sex, no love life. Or you have a cute one it's very sweet, like a dog playing the piano. I think somewhere I noticed that I didn't like the way older people were portrayed, but I don't think I thought, "I'm going to remedy this." I don't have an ax to grind.
BNR: "In Love with Murray" is about a May-September romance, but we don't seem to want September-September romances.
AH: The reason September-September romances don't interest us, we're not attracted to them, has to do with Oedipal taboos. Do you have children? How old are you?
BNR: I'm forty-two. I have a five-year-old boy.
AH: He's been in love with his mother, would be my bet. He also loves his father, I'm sure.
BNR: Yes. Most days.
AH: Wait until you see what goes on in adolescence. Adolescence is as important as those first five, six years, because when you're giving up the attraction, the romance with the parents, you become very peer-conscious. Then you have lots of friction with your parents, usually. So, it's a period of mourning. You have to give up those earliest ties. Well, get hit with a book that's about September-September romances, where you've got to pay attention to old people making love with each other yuck. Because that's what you wanted to do, and you have to push the whole thing out of mind. So you make old people cuddly, cute, eccentric, but not sexual. You don't want to read about that. I think that's a big hunk of why nobody wants to touch that.
There's also fear of death. Many people are frightened about the aging of the body: "Don't tell me about old age. I don't want to know what's coming." There's a sense of certain things being frightening. Nobody wants to go near it. But the unconscious never dies. We're all making slips all the time. You introduce your mother as your wife and you think, Oh my God. This mixture, it's always alive, but you have to push it down so you can marry somebody else.
BNR: There's a striking scene in the story "At the Happy Isles." In the bathroom, the mother has made a huge mess, and the daughter is singing in her mind, "Everybody loves a baby. That's why I'm in love with you, shitty baby." You're accessing a lot of complicated feelings about an older daughter who has to become the mother.
AH: I'm a psychiatrist, and I'm a psychoanalyst. What you're working in is how people's minds work. And it takes a long time to really understand what's going on in another person and for that person to be able to reveal himself or herself more. Part of what's going on is that one should come to feel that what goes on in one's head is not bad. It's not a moral issue, what goes on in one's head. It's something to be let up so you see it, you understand it, and get where it's coming from.
Everybody wants to squash different things, but that's what's important to see: What do they squash? What never comes up? Those words "Everybody loves a baby. That's why I'm in love with you, shitty baby" they reflect the conflict she has toward her mother. She loves her mother. Her mother is a sturdy woman who survived several marriages. The daughter is also a sturdy woman. She brought up a daughter by herself. She earns a good living. She's an emergency room physician. She takes care of people. This mother has those traits, but the mother is also very belittling person. She belittles her daughter every inch of the way. That makes one very angry, to be exposed to that from the person you love as a little being first in the world, to have that person have a lot of cutting-down traits. She's in the room cleaning up all this crap, and it's hard. She's been taking crap from her mother all her life. So there she is with a mixture of feelings, and it comes out in this song.
BNR: "In Love with Murray" is dedicated to Bernard Malamud. How much of this story echoes your relationship with him?
AH: Very loosely. I had an affair that went on for two years. The central part of it was over by the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two. But we were very good friends until he died, about twenty-five years later. I must have spoken to him every week, and we had wonderful letters. [In the story] there's a nineteen-year-old, and she falls in love with a man who's around forty-nine, which was the age difference between Bern and me. I made the characters into painters. I'm sick of people writing about writers. One wonderful thing about going to medical school is that you get to know about people who are not English teachers and not writers.
Some of the lines in the story are clipped from letters that he sent me. When he died he had on his desk a letter he was writing to me about a psychoanalytic article I sent him about how your development is affected if you have a parent who dies when you're young. [Malamud's mother died when he was fifteen.] I sent him that article, and he was writing back in his letter that he looked down a corridor or into a room that he wasn't meant to look into.
He has had as much effect on me as either of my two husbands, whom I've loved dearly. It was a piece of good fortune on both our parts, even though it's not conventional. Having an affair with a married man, I'm sure there was fallout in his family. But between nineteen and twenty-one or twenty-two, you don't really know what you're doing altogether, anyway. When Philip Davis called to interview me for his book [2010's Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life], I didn't respond at first. I called Bern's widow, and I said to her, "Ann, what do you want me to do?" She said, "Arlene, it's so long ago. Tell it as it was." She also said, "Use your good discretion." So I got a little bit of a mixed message.
BNR: What happened to the novel you wrote about the affair, Lovers and Ghosts?
AH: It got rejected at many, many places, like most writing does. When that happens, one thing you can do is you can feel forlorn and throw it out, or say, "What's to be done with this?" What I did with it was, I yanked parts out of it and got that short story.
BNR: So are you Amy in The Ghost Writer? [In Philip Roth's 1979 novel, Amy is the girlfriend of E.nbsp;I. Lonoff, a writer modeled in part on Malamud. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, begins to think that Amy, with whom Lonoff is having an affair, may be Anne Frank.]
AH: That's very funny, because when that [excerpt from the novel] came out in the New Yorker, I thought, Good God, does he know about this? How did he know about this? What Roth said about it was that, when he wrote his book and then twenty years later the Malamud biography came out, everybody said to him, "How did you know this? How did you know he was having an affair?" And Roth said he was just astonished as anyone. He just made it up.
BNR: There's a sweet counterintuitive passage in the final story, "Nothing Human," where you write that "aged flesh is so fertile, grows excrescences," that it "nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms beautiful, if you have an eye." As a culture we don't seem to have an eye for that particular kind of beauty.
AH: I had my blood drawn a few years ago, and there was a black man there, and he made a joke to me, saying, "White people always say all us blacks look alike. All you whites look alike." And I said to him, "Not if you love one of us." If you love another person, you see that person. It doesn't matter what race the person is, what age the person is. You see that person. It's about seeing all their particularities.
To retreat from aged people is denying them their humanity. That's not your intention, but they look scary to you for Oedipal reasons, for fear of death and aging, whatever the reasons are. You don't think about them as individual human beings. But if you think, This person has a mother, father, lover, children, if you've loved an old person, that's a beautiful creased face.
March 15, 2016
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting and engaging short stories about people dealing with death, loved ones dying, middle aged sex, affairs, caring for aged parents, struggles of marriage and second marriages, etc., written by the talented author Arelne Heyman. I received the novel free from a Goodreads Giveaway. The short story "The Loves of Her Life" begins with the husband, Stu, asking his wife, Marianne, "Would you like to make love?" Marianne starts thinking about how she used to make love to her first husband three or four times a week and now things are so different. Marianne is 65, has acid reflux and has to stay upright for two or three hours after eating, and uses low-level estrogen tablets twice a week. Her husband, Stu, is 70 and has to take medicine. My favorite of the short stories is "Dancing" about the love of a family and care of a member of the family who is dying. The son is at school and sees the Twin Towers attack and rushes to be with his parents so his mom won't needlessly worry about him. The mom, Ann, is taking care of her husband, Matt, who is dying and stays with him to care for him and is there at the end. The funniest scene is from the short story, "Nothing Human." Her husband comes out of the bathroom in the middle of the night and she calls out, "Dear, did you wash your hands?" He responds, "I never wash my hands in the middle of the night." She says, "You don't, why not?" The husband replies, "I don't want to wake myself up." She then goes to the bathroom and comes out to hear her husband snoring, "For God's sake, put on your CPAP machine!" Read the must read, highly recommended short stories about life as it really is.
The two stars are for the quality of the writing and editing; not the content. Both my wife and I read the first story and found it so brutally distasteful that neither had the desire to read another. It wasn't the language; it was the all around mean-spirited nature of the story. As my wife, who is a psychiatrist, said, "if the author were my psychiatrist I'd never see her again after reading this."