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Bibliolatry
33 Halliburton in Hell
32 Mr. Fabulous Chicken Fricassee
31 Little Dictators
30 The 2002 B-TOY Awards
29 My Fitness Goals
28 A Streetcar Named Darlene
27 Operation Enduring Irritation
26 Au Revoir
25 Jeanette MacDonald Among the Ruins
24 I, Flannel-Mouthed Shave Tail
23 The Center of the Universe
22 Some Ketchup with That?
21 That Loathsome Guild
20 Honey-Sweet
19 Buff-Daddy Bookseller
18 Dr. Seuss, Heretic
17 A Smart Bomb Sampler
16 Bin Laden, Bushranger
15 Puppet Nature
14 Character Determines Fate
13 Fundamentally Changed
12 The Smell of Rodent in the Morning
11 Planet of the Bobos
10 Poor William Rehnquist
9 What Michael Pollan Learned From His Alien Abductors
8 We Are in the End Times
7 The Incurable Disease of Writing
6 Halitosis of the Mind
5 My Mommy Fetish
4 Sherlock Holmes Was No Fancy Boy
3 Joyce Carol Oates Scares Me
2 Global Warming is Getting on My Nerves
1 I. Don't. Like. Dave. Eggers

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Q&A | August 19, 2014

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Describe your latest book. The Getaway God is the sixth book in the Sandman Slim series. In it, the very unholy nephilim, James Stark, aka Sandman... Continue »
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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
independent
bookseller
No. 28: 

A Streetcar Named Darlene

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Editor's note:
Carlisle's on another gender bender. We know from experience it's best to just back off and let it run its course. While you're waiting, though, you might pick up one of these fascinating books exploring gender, sex, and other fuzzy maths.

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Myra Breckinridge
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"Myra Breckinridge continues to give wicked pleasure and still seems to have fixed the limit beyond which the most advanced aesthetic neo-pornography ever can go." Harold Bloom, The New York Review of Books

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Crossing: A Memoir
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"Deirdre McCloskey's brave, witty, dizzying autobiography positively drips tears, sex, danger, and courage with each sashaying step." Kate Bornstein

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We have a new employee here at Powell's. Her name is Betty, and she's my kind of gal. She drinks. She smokes. She idolizes Margaret Cho. She's not in the market for new friends, though. She got married only two months ago, and she's still in love with love. Each evening, the moment her shift is over, she's out the door wearing one of those annoying grins reserved for newlyweds, schizophrenics, and gaseous babies.

So you can imagine our response when she told us that Dale, her groom, was going to pick her up for lunch and asked if we'd like to meet him. Was she kidding? She'd already made him out as some kind of latter day Stanley Kowalski: virile, enterprising, and "hunkalicious." He'd just opened his own mechanics shop called The Greasy Nut. I don't know about anyone else, but I wanted to meet him.

When he arrived, I had a chance to give him a leisurely once over as Betty was introducing him around the store. It was queer. Was I imagining things, or is Dale the spitting image of my father. Sure, he was a few inches shorter — and in far better shape. But he had the same angular jaw, tuberous nose, and heavy-lidded, gray eyes as my father. He even combed the same shock of coarse hair, thick as a mud flat, across his square forehead. He wasn't terribly handsome to my eyes, but I could definitely see the appeal. Betty's husband is one of those rare people who is truly at ease in his own skin. Like the smell of home cooking, when people like Dale enter a room, everyone feels simultaneously relaxed and expectant.

When they finally arrived in my corner, Betty, proud as a peahen, introduced us: "Carlisle, this is my husband Dale. Dale, this is Carlisle." As he offered me his hand, Dale told Betty, to my surprise, that we'd already met. Then, with just the hint of a sly grin, he addressed me directly: "Hello, Carlisle, how've you been keeping yourself?"

"Hello, Dale." I was a bit unnerved. After a moment's hesitation, though, I decided to come clean. "Sorry if I'm being rude. You look terribly familiar, but I can't for the life of me remember where we've met."

With a deep, Boris Karloff chuckle, he said, "Well, Carlisle, we've met through your cousin Darlene."

Now that took me by surprise. No one in my family had heard from Darlene since the late eighties, when she abruptly cut off all communication and disappeared without a trace. And while it's true that as a teenager Darlene hung out with the type of guys who became mechanics like Dale Kowalski here....

Well, maybe "hung out" isn't quite the right phrase. In high school, Darlene used to park her metallic blue Camaro in front of the Superette and match, beer for beer, any Marlboro-smoking young tough foolish enough to take her on. When they were good and plastered, she'd challenge them to a bout of chicken, and then laugh in their faces after she'd run them into the ditch. Few men can handle being whooped by a girl, so Darlene made a lot of enemies as a teenager. I suppose she might have also had a few friends, though I didn't know of any.

"So, did you know Darlene in high school?" I asked.

"I sure did, though not very well yet. She kept her distance from me as a teenager."

"Darlene kept everyone at arms length back then."

"Yeah, and moving to Eugene didn't really help much either."

This was true. Like most of us at eighteen, Darlene was having a hard time finding a workable way to be in the world. By the time she left for college, she had clearly realized that rebelling without a cause was earning her nothing but a beer gut and a lot of wear on her tires. So during her first quarter at the University of Oregon she decided to try rebelling with a cause. She joined the revolution. Within two weeks after moving into the dorm, Darlene had stopped trying to out Alpha every man she met, and had accepted, lock, stock, and (Kalashnikov) barrel, the fevered tenets of the Great Proletariat Revolution.

Throughout Darlene's communist phase — or, as my father dubbed it, her Red Period — the family had absolutely no idea what to make of her. One image in particular is burned in my memory: Darlene sitting at Thanksgiving dinner in her red beret and Mao jacket lecturing her mother on the basics of Marxist theory — "When discussing the socialist revolution to come, it's important to avoid language that serves, however subtly, the very machination of bourgeois hegemony we're working to subvert. Instead, we must cultivate a level of discourse free of the variegated oppressions of class distinction" — while my aunt, a forkful of turkey hovering in limbo halfway to her mouth, tries, unsuccessfully, to tear her eyes away from Darlene's breasts, which, without the benefit of any support whatsoever, are sagging clear to her navel.

"So you knew Darlene in Eugene, too?" I asked.

"Barely. We were pretty out of touch during the eighties. The Marxism was bad enough. But when she started in on all that 'We Moon' crap, I just couldn't take it."

Few could. In her junior year, Darlene had discovered young love in the form of a tiny wood nymph named Sarah. They changed their names to Hag (Darlene) and Spider (Sarah), got matching body art (the phases of the moon in six tiny tattoos arrayed across the back of the neck), and joined a radical lesbian commune call The No Harm Farm.

Now, I've never actually been to No Harm. I tried to visit once but turned back when confronted with the following sign nailed to the front gate: "You are entering No Harm Farm. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, intolerance — and MEN — are not welcome here." But, I knew a lot about the place, nonetheless. I was going through my own "phase" at the time and was volunteering twice a week at a vegan food collective. Naturally, the Earnest Eggplant was popular with the radical lesbian crowd, so I overheard enough talk about the farm to get the general idea.

Most of the women who lived there had come out of one or another of the various Radical Left groups popular in the seventies. But they had each come to the realization that Karl Marx — who was, after all, a man — had misdiagnosed the problem. Capitalism is just a symptom. The real problem is the authoritarian father-god of our patriarchal society who thrives on violence, greed, domination, and restrictive clothing. In contrast, the wymyn at No Harm worshipped the far more ancient Great Earth Goddess: communal, nurturing, powerful, and buck naked.

They strove to replace the "phallocentric" society they had grown up in with a new/old "vagicentric" one of their own making. It was all very cutting edge and experimental. They spent their midnights "taking back their power" in loud declarations made to the four directions, their mornings sleeping off peyote hangovers, and most every other waking minute trying to communicate through a clutter of hyphens, slashes, and randomly-placed capital letters: "Be-ing Power/ful Womb-en means re/Source-ing our Sisterhood, it means re-Turning, Crone-i-logically, to the source of our fuller/vulver Ecsta-tic Journeying."

It's pretty easy to make fun of desperate idealism. But I felt I understood, more or less, what attracted Darlene to radical lesbianism. Growing up, Darlene had always been treated as a misfit. When she first left home, she'd joined the revolution hoping to finally fit in, or to at least distract herself with Purpose. But revolutionaries, rhetoric notwithstanding, are intolerant as hell, which my cousin soon realized. So when she found a group that claimed her as one of their own, she signed up. I suppose the regular sex didn't hurt either. Whatever. For a while, at least, Darlene seemed to have found her niche. She became less confrontational and far more pleasant to be around. She even laughed once in a while.

It was during the No Harm period that Darlene and I became friends. I think this took us both by surprise. Fellow misfits or not, growing up we'd had little time for one another. To be totally honest, I was afraid of Darlene. Not only did I have an instinctual distrust of anyone who dipped chaw or wore football jerseys, but I avoided, like polyester pants, anyone who gave monkey bumps: "OOOooowwww, Darlene. That huuuuuurts! I'm telling."

"For Christ's sake, Carl" — Darlene was the only person who ever called me that — "Isn't it about time you rooted around in those Capri pants of yours and found your balls?"

But now that Darlene had foresworn both violence and football jerseys we found we actually liked one another. When I wasn't volunteering at the Earnest Eggplant I worked at a small bookstore near campus. Darlene would drop in once or twice a week to browse the auto repair manuals and to say hello. We would generally sit down to a cup of oat straw tea. She'd explain something of current feminist theory, and I'd tell her about our efforts at the Bette Davis society to organize an annual film festival (I never did make a very good hippie).

But as we got closer, Darlene began to open up to me more and more. And I soon came to realize that she wasn't as happy at No Harm as I'd thought. I remember one conversation in particular, because it was so odd, and maybe because it was one of our last. She'd been complaining that the women at No Harm didn't seem able to keep their mouths shut. "From morning to night all they want to do is talk about their relationships or gossip about someone else's. Who bloody cares? It's driving me crazy. I've been spending more and more time rebuilding the engine on that VW bus just to get away from them"

I suggested she try a change of scenery, maybe move to California, or New York: "There are lots of lesbians in New York."

She turned to me, and with the strangest expression, said, "You know, Carl. I think that's part of the problem. I don't think I am a lesbian." Not a lesbian? So incongruous was the idea of Darlene with a man, it took me a moment to reply: "I thought you had a good thing with Spider."

"Yeah, she's great. It's not that. It's something else. It just doesn't quite fit."

Two weeks later, Spider showed up at the bookstore unkempt, and with enormous bags under her eyes. She was looking for 'Hag.' "Have you seen her?"

Apparently the day before, Darlene/Hag had shown up at the farm driving an old beat up Ford Truck with a gun rack. She was wearing Levis and a football jersey. And had cut her mullet. She told Spider that she loved her, but that she was never going to be truly happy as a lesbian, and that it was high time she took the bull by the horns. What she meant by that was anyone's guess. Then she drove away and no one has heard from her since.

"So, Dale, have you seen Darlene since she left Eugene?"

"Oh, she makes an appearance now and then. But as you know, she made her choice to check out, and — so far so good — she seems pretty happy about it."

Dale was in contact with Darlene? I was excited. I was mad — why him and not me? I had a million questions to ask. But before I could open my mouth, Betty grabbed Dale by the arm: "Let's go, honey. We're not going to have time for lunch."

"Hey, Carl, it was nice to meet you. We should get together for a beer sometime and have a good man to man. I think we might have a lot to talk about."

Since when, I wondered, are mechanics interested in being friends with me? But as he turned to walk away, I noticed a tattoo on the back of his neck that looked like a series of tiny moons, and I suddenly knew the answer.

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