Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman: ageless stories of sex and death
There are second husbands, second thoughts and second chances in this provocative and moving debut collection from a New York psychiatrist
Scary Old Sex
Ronseal titles – books that are exactly what it says on the tin – are all the rage in American short story collections. Diane Cook’s original debut collection, Man v Nature, was exactly that, pitting humans against a cruel world out to devour them. In When Mystical Creatures Attack, by Kathleen Founds, vampires, minotaurs and unicorns are seen through the eyes of teenage creative writers. In Lauren Holmes’s first collection, Barbara the Slut and Other People, Barbara chooses to have sex with lots of her classmates, but only ever once. And Texan writer Merritt Tierce’s excellent debut, Love Me Back, a novel of interlinked stories, features a young waitress full of self-loathing and bent on debasing herself.
A welcome addition to the fray is Scary Old Sex. With a title that reflects her perceptive and earthy stories, debuting author Arlene Heyman gives us sex, death and second chances with a refreshingly older cast of characters. Heyman is a practising psychiatrist in Manhattan, and her writing displays an intimate knowledge of the human psyche.
The seven stories examine how the mind works, focusing on the way we connect with others. They have been published in New American Review and Epoch, and have earned Heyman an honorary listing in The Best American Short Stories.
Witty and direct
Internal struggles are laid bare, irrespective of age and gender. Heyman switches easily between a 19-year-old woman obsessed with a renowned older artist, to a father dying of leukaemia, to a middle-aged doctor on her second husband and yearning for her youth. The style is direct and often witty, with the analyst’s insight into human behaviour constant throughout.
Marianne, the narrator of opening story The Loves of Her Life, is on her second marriage to the kindly but oafish Stu. The mechanics of their sex life are contrasted with Marianne’s fantasies of being dominated in front of an audience. From Vagifem to Viagra to KY Jelly, the collection’s title is to the fore: “In short, for them, making love was like running war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously.”
In Love with Murray sees a young art student, Leda, fall for a married Jewish artist in his 50s who views her as “antidote to middle age”. As Leda moves from attraction to adoration to the realities of being the other woman, the creative process is also examined: “He would leave his studio like a patient emerging from a coma – lost, stumbling, eyes hardly open.”
One of the most affecting stories, Push Me, focuses on the circle of life as the cantankerous Gussie commands her daughter Marilyn to push her around the nursing home. The wheelchair has replaced the pram; it is a grim and poignant situation of dependency and guilt, mixed with the indignity and horror of aging as Marilyn cleans her mother’s diarrhoea.
Another Jewish character, Gussie complains about the “goyish holiday” of Christmas while she lords her three husbands over her unmarried daughter. Heyman’s ear for dialect is evident throughout the collection, often with irony, as with Murray, who “would not like a fifty-year-old married man shtupping one of his daughters”.
In the tense Artifact, Lottie, a scientist who dissects rats in a Manhattan lab, juggles her work with a second husband and various offspring, such as Jake’s teenage daughter Ruth, who “blew in from LA like a small high- pressure front” every August – and whose hatred of Lottie hasn’t waned over time.
Dancing, one of the more complex stories, starts off with Solly, a teenager talking about typical teenage preoccupations, when 9/11 suddenly happens right outside the window of his downtown Manhattan school. Public disaster is contrasted with personal trauma as the story switches, somewhat jarringly, to the hospital where Solly’s father, Matt, is battling cancer.
The moving account of Matt and his wife’s efforts to outsmart the disease is brilliantly related. The lengths they go to for sex, the hope, the return of the cancer – are all painstakingly clear, as is the ultimate message that “one gets over nothing in life”.
In Nightcall, sex and death feature again, with the bizarre story of a son being called by his father’s mistress after the man drops dead half-naked in her home.
The closing story, Nothing Human, is a funny account of a late-night fight between a couple on board a cruise ship. Second husbands and second chances are again to the fore, as are comparisons with former partners.
As the narrator attacks her husband for not washing his hands after using the bathroom, for snoring, for his ability to sleep soundly, the true cause of her anguish hits her the next morning: how she has lost her youth, how she still misses her first husband, how she will “never ever even hear him say again, ‘I’ve got the easy part, I’m dying’.”