Robert Olen Butler
(Chronicle Books
We get both sides of the picture and both sides of the bed of those in bed: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Sigmund Freud with Minna Bernays, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, Princess Diana with Charles Philip Arthur George (the Prince of Wales). All pairings include name, age, date, and site of explosion.

There are the couplings that we might expect ... Adam and Eve, Bonnie and Clyde, Anthony and Cleopatria, Paris and Helen: she, "and he is beautiful in face and neck and hands and chest and thighs, but not as beautiful as me."

There are a few which may never have occurred, who are we to say? Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman? (They did meet, but only for an afternoon of elderberry wine.) Milton Berle with the 1920s evangelical superstar Aimee Semple McPherson? (His word against hers). Senator Robert Kennedy bedding Marilyn Monroe. (She told Ralph Roberts that there was no chance of an affair with him. "He's too puny.") There are others that, please, we don't even want to think about, much less know about: Bill and Hillary. Dick and Pat Nixon. And oof, Joseph R. McCarthy and Jean Kerr McCarthy.

Least you think this is only a twisty take on what might merely be obscene couplings I have to tell you that our author is too good for that. Despite its coarse implications, Intercourse is a hard act to follow. What might turn out to be merely diddling in anyone else's hands becomes here elegant fun and fantasy.

Butler has researched his subjects to a fare-thee-well: Hitler's whip, Mozart's "demisemiquaver kisses," Louis XVI's locks, Napoléon's dog Fortuné ("big dog on my doggie I missed her signifying") and, ah, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her first words as the rush is about to overtake her and his strabismus, "one eye drifts away, neither of them looking at me ... I have vanished."

And he: La Nausée ... "I think I'm going to be sick."

Then there is Gertrude Stein, on her lifetime love Alice B. Toklas, spoken (or thought) surely as only Gertrude Stein could: "I touch her black wisp of a mustache the bottom edge of her black mustache just above her lip, certainly it is her mustache certainly it is hers the mustache is hers certainly I touch her wisp of a mustache certainly with my fingertip along her lip certainly it is her lip..." Jefferson's Sally is not thinking revolt, nor, as most would wish, sorely put upon, but willing, dangerously so: "I will never as long as I live know how I come to lift my hand and put it on my master's face but I do and I am happy."

And there is even one that might be the furthest from our thoughts when we think on passion, a pairing that is here, and gently, given a certain equivocal tenderness: "on the table beside the bed, my weekly orchid --- this time he chose a Cypripedium" ... he was a machine-gun man and he was a flower man and he needed me to hold him."

Is he proud, our author? Perish the thought. Page 200 - 201, Robert Olen Butler ("62, writer, Vietnam veteran") and Miss X ("36, hotel desk clerk, daughter of North Vietnamese soldier") in "room 1503, Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers, August 11, 2007."

He: "since I was first in this city, thirty-six years, four wives, a father, a hundred thousand special moments of the body, my Saigon have all passed..."

And she, fatherless for thirty-six years, "I touch him some more and he speaks in a father's voice and I will hold him even closer though once he could have pulled the trigger himself."

--- Deb Das
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