In school, at the mall, online, sashaying down a summer street, out on the Island, down at the shore, pouting sirens in their little come-on costumes call out to the American male, who whistles and snorts, rearranges his equipment, talks big, elevates his snout. He takes in the scent of freshly shampooed hair, the pink dazzle of lip gloss, the tattoos peeping out from the waistbands of those black lycra running shorts. The sportive sirens raise their arms and rearrange their hair. The American male can't tell if they're squinting or winking at him. For the briefest moment he loses himself, then totters on, hot and bothered, unable to relieve himself. It's a man's world, but it wouldn't mean nothin without a woman or a girl. He's a figure made of clay. What about the girls?
I'm ashamed how it entertained me, the way American manhood was portrayed, the awful thwarted throbbingness of it, herky-jerky from head to heel. Marty Scorcese in the back of Travis Bickle's cab -- "Do you know what a .44 Magnum can do to a woman's pussy?" Nice talk, huh? Remember Harvey Keitel, playing Jodie Foster's pimp Sport, the way he danced with her, just the two of them in a cheap shit hotel room, so close, the way he whispered in her ear, "I only wish every man could know what it's like to be loved by you..." He wasn't telling no lie -- he meant it, the sentimental corrupter. It's not just business with me.
We've outgrown that animalistic talk. Today, on the front page of the TBR, there's Nicholson Baker outvoxing himself -- candy corn indeed! -- whilst gleefully tugging at his writerly member, his wit extolled by Sam Lipsyte. Literary unicorns locking horns in the locker room. Measly plumbers. U & me.
So tell me, poot, what place does Lolita have in this screwed-up culture of ours? Here is this novel about sex, the kind of sex that upends most Americans, sex between a middle-aged pervert (forget his effin language skills) and a nymphet -- nice coinage that -- dimly aware that what she's just awakened to between her thoughts and her thighs drives older men crazy. You'd think it would be consigned to the long list of proscribed texts, unfit for adolescent consumption, to be read only by middle-aged perverts. But no. It's a classic, a backlist bestseller, a book that's read and taught -- taught! -- in high school and college, the subject of innumerable learned lectures, of undergraduate essays, of book discussion groups. Professors take it apart and (occasionally) put it back together, if they can remember how the pieces fit. Contemporary novelists feel compelled to contend with it. It's been annotated, made into two movies, and set to music. Such an exquisitely crafted, witty piece of meta-fiction, begging to be taken seriously so as not to be taken literally. J. claims that Nabokov was a sadist. "Lolita is a literary lap-dance. You'll wet your underpants but you won't be satisfied."
We can make other claims about Nabokov's novel -- that it is a critique (and a celebration) of the vulgarity of American popular culture, a love letter to English prosody, an allegory of ideological imprisonment (fervently denied by Nabokov himself), a morality play (also denied by the author), a work of literary criticism, a jaundiced view of the corruption of the New World by the Old, a chimp painting the bars of his cage on the blank canvas of his rage, a cautionary tale warning the Old World aesthete how easy it is to succumb to the rude charms of the New World seductress -- but it is, first and foremost, about sex. The little death. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Humbert Humbert knows something and he wants to impart his knowledge to little Lo. (Zeus had some terrible knowledge to give to Leda too.) I was too young when I first read the book. I didn't understand it. Now at fifty-seven I think I do -- most of it.
Humbert's like the rest of us -- what he knows is not worth much. It'll fit in a teaspoon. The old prick will only get as much out of this affair as he puts into it. As for Dolly, she knows something too, but her time is short: soon she'll grow up, get married, lose that girlish shape, die in childbirth. After a while she'll be shorthand for jailbait. The Greeks had knowledge they wanted to impart to young boys. What kind of knowledge is that? Maybe Nabokov wanted to teach us men something about ourselves: that we really yearn for young girls. Then he rubs our noses in the truth and consequences of our lust -- innocence turns to rot the moment we violate it, even with our minds. The worm in the bud.
Quist still reads the papers, sees how parents push their daughters into the limelight. He watches the kids parading up and down the boardwalk. He tells me he's happiest since he became impotent and stopped thinking about girls. "You know, Bud," he says, "These Lolitas will never learn. And neither will their men."