Susan Straight
(Houghton Mifflin)
Well, let's see if we can get this straight, Susan. Serafina slips over the Mexican border into the California desert and meets Larry. She's shy, a mountain girl from the wilds of Oaxaca, speaks only Mixtec. Larry takes her in, lies atop her (in her words), gets her with child.

When baby Elvia is a couple of years old, one day, while he is off working (or boozing), Serafina tries to make his car work, runs down the street, off the road, and into the bushes. The police come, haul her away, and since she can't speak English, she can't tell them about her baby back in the car. The child is found wandering around later and sent to a foster home.

Serafina gets shipped back to Mexico by the migra, and when she tries to come back to find her daughter, she's beset at the border by two Mexicans who rape her, beat her up, and break her arm. Her illiterate grandmother comes north, somehow finds her in a clinic in Tijuana, and hauls her back to Oaxaca, where Granny then up and develops cancer and dies.

We meet Elvia again when she is fifteen. She has turned into a tough cookie, says "fuck" a lot, and she's back living with Larry (who, improbably, was able to find her in foster care). They live with step-mother Callie who, with Larry, is into crack cocaine. She complains about Elvia's dark skin.

One evening, they are at their dealer's place, and the lab (and the house) blows up, and all perish, except the three of them, and Larry decides to give up on Callie and her habit and goes off with Elvia, who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant by one of her schoolmates.

Larry and Ellie and one of his buddies end up in a seedy motel, the men watching pornies. Elvia can't take it, and steals Larry's car, to go find Mum, who she has been, all these years, pining for, and she as she nears the border, I give up.

§     §     §

I am as willing as the next man to admit that the life of the "indocumentos" is a tough one. I will not gainsay that there are disasters in finding work and love and dealing with prejudice and death and disaster and drugs on the border. But my take on that world (and the world of novels) is that these things are (or should be) parsed out a bit.

For their lives can be terrible and remorseless and soul-destroying, but there are also moments --- at least in the lives of the people I know who live in that world --- of joy and life and fiesta and music and poetry.

If Straight wants to see that world as nasty, drug-infested, and brutish --- that is her choice. If she wants to stick in a set of improbable deus ex machinas (the shy Serafina trying to drive a car; two cops ignoring her heartfelt gestures towards her baby; Larry the bum somehow finding his daughter; Oaxacan Granny somehow finding Serafina in Tijuana --- pop. 2,000,000) that, too, is her choice. But if she wants to put it between covers and call it art, we have to demur.

In our readings we have the right to expect a mix of sorrow and wonder, of tragedy and delight, of horror and ecstasy. It's called life. To see our journeys as unremitting horror, speckled with some of the most improbable happenings this side of Disneyland, is not only distorting, it makes the discerning reader feel --- as Jerome K. Jerome would have it --- too much put upon.

--- Carlos Amantea

Sex Tips
From Men Who
Ride the Sexual

Jo-Anne Baker, Editor
(Fusion, 101 Southwerk,
London SE1 0JH England)
Twenty-seven male sex therapists offer their advice on everything having to do with the bush patrol: breathing, position, courtship, the do's and the don'ts.

Some of the do's are a bit off the wall. For instance, on sex during pregnancy, the editor opines that couples cease having intercourse "when the contractions reach every 10 minutes."

    After the baby has been born I always say a gentleman waits till I deliver the placenta. For some couples this is an extremely emotional and sexually charged time, and many couples can hardly wait to get home so they can make love. I remember a particular French couple, he told me afterwards he was so turned on he had an erection during the whole labour and birth.

One of the featured writers, Michael Castleman, has been a Playboy advisor. He calls himself "a major missionary for lubricants." He says that women often do not "self-lubricate." His language might be confusing for your average automobile nut:

    I think everyone should use a lube every time...That's why I've become a professional lube missionary. Someone has to spread the good word.

Claiming not to be well-endowed, he has some terse words for those who think that a large member is important enough to write home about.

    I discovered that there's a great deal more to penis size than the sex books and advice columnists explain. I also reaped an unexpected dividend: I made peace with my penis. You can, too.

Good advice --- especially for those of us ladies who lack the divining rod.

Dr Jules Black of Australia tells us about doctors who are uncomfortable discussing sex with their patients. He reports a magazine article that described a woman having sex with her dog. There was some feeling that this magazine should not be in his hospital library. It turns out it was an article abstracted from the highly-respected American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, reporting on a "heavily pregnant woman whose man had left her and she was feeling extremely sexual, so she had sex with her Alsatian."

    She went into anaphylactic shock from the dog's sperm. I do not condone sex with animals [says Dr. Black], but it does happen out there in the real world, and I just wanted to point out there are very real risks.

Kenneth Ray Stubbs owns an erotological publishing house, and here he speaks at some length about techniques of touch. He then tells us,

    I had a neck injury when I was 46 years old, which came about from a sexual energy experience. I had been working for many years on expanding my orgasmic energy through meditation and yoga, and one day had an orgasm that was so intense that my body couldn't stand it. I fell and hurt myself severely, injuring a ligament in my neck.

§     §     §

Our concern with Sex Tips is threefold. One is to question why Ms. Baker chose to limit the articles to male sex therapists, giving the work a heavy masculine bias that is in no way balanced by occasional inserts from the editor.

Secondly, the opening quote, featured prominently, is Polonius' advice to his son Laertes, from "Hamlet:"

                 to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Since Polonius was a notorious meddler, back-stabber, liar and gossip, and since Shakespeare made these words heavily ironical, we're not quite sure why they would be featured so prominently in a book that purports to present writings on honesty in sexuality.

Finally, given the unusual advice, especially that bit on intercourse before and after parturition, wouldn't it have been better to entitle it Sex Tips from the Far Edge?


--- Lolita Lark


The Archaeology
Of Garbage

William Rathje,
Cullen Murphy

Our landfills are not getting overloaded from disposable diapers and junk-food containers (less than 1% by volume) --- or even from plastics (16%) --- but by telephone books and the likes of the Sunday New York Times, which counts for over 40% of the waste. In Mexico, whole families live in the dumps --- they're called pepenadores --- and serve as excellent recyclers (some families pass their garbage rights on to their children since there is a fair amount of money to be made in their finds).

Most of us have a rather romantic view of the ideal garbage land-fill site,

    There is a popular notion that in its depths the typical municipal landfill is a locus of roiling fermentation, of intense chemical and biological activity...an environment where organic matter is rapidly breaking down --- biodegrading --- into a sort of rich, moist, brown humus, returning at last to the bosom of Mother Nature.

The truth is, according to the authors of Rubbish! is that a landfill is "a much more static structure:"

    Well-designed and managed landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than to transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters; rather they are vast mummifiers.

Furthermore, says the author, "it might be a good thing" --- largely because we don't want that black soup of chemicals, germ-laden organic waste, and other disgusting stuffs leeching into our water tables.

Rathje started the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona in 1972. He was a trained anthropologist and reasoned that since we have been able to draw exact portraits of ancient cultures by examining what they have discarded, we could do the same with our own by carefully and scientifically excavating our dumps.

Utilizing classic archeological techniques, Rathje & Co. have come up with some wondrous facts. For instance, they have found that they can date waste in garbage piles by classifying pull-tabs from Gatorade, Borden's Yogurt Shake, Kern's Fruit Nectars, Heineken Buckhorn, Schlitz Old Milwaukee, and other cans from the 1970s.

    One might think of punch-tops...as the garbage equivalent of the famous iridium layer found in sediment toward the end of the Cretaceous Era, marking the moment (proponents of the theory believe) when a giant meteor crashed into the planet Earth, exterminating the dinosaurs.

The authors go into the history of garbage not only in Roman or Mayan times, but turn-of-the-century United States. It is enough to make you glad to be living a hundred years later:

    It is difficult for anyone alive now to appreciate how appalling, as recently as a century ago, were the conditions of daily life in all of the cities of the Western world....The stupefying level of wrack and rejectamenta in one's immediate vicinity that was accepted as normal from prehistory through the Enlightenment was raised horribly by the Industrial Revolution.

Those classic movies with story-lines out of New York or San Francisco from the 1890's fortunately are not in Smellavision, for animal corpses --- especially horses --- and the waste from humans, animals, rendering plants, and effluvia could, as we used to phrase it, "curl the short hairs."

Other facts to ponder: those wonderful 90-gallon trash containers that many of us now use have succeeded in almost doubling the output of garbage from the average family. Why? Because paint cans and broken parts and toys that would be salted away "in case we might need them" are now so much easier to dump. The authors also tell us that those items we so patriotically sent off to Britain during WWII (Bundles for Britain, along with rubber, scrap, paper, tin, aluminum) were

    too much trouble to move and clean and process --- and, unbeknownst to the public, [were] quietly landfilled when the war was over.

Disposable diapers are known in garbageology as an "exclusive demographic marker" because only infants wear them:

    To be sure, one may find a few used diapers in the garbage of a person, such as a grandparent or babysitter, with no infant in permanent residence.

"But the diapers themselves," the authors tell us, point to the existence of babies."

    Or so one would like to presume. It is conceivable, of course, that there is an equivalent for disposable diapers of the cloth-diaper fetishist in St. Petersburg, Florida, who posed as a diaper-service driver and stole diapers off people's porches. After the thief's eventual apprehension, in 1987 --- he was wearing a diaper under his clothes at the time --- a search of his home turned up some 370 diapers, all cleaned and neatly folded.

That's recycling!

Rathje and Cullen are wonderful, literate writers, with a great sense of fun --- and Rubbish! (now thankfully reissued by the University of Arizona Press) is not only packed with disgusting and delightful tid-bits, but, as well, unlikely quotes --- not only from "Joe Bananas" Bonanno and various garbage workers, but also the National Enquirer, Wallace Stegner, Charles Reich, and Thomas Jefferson.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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