Trial by Doxy
LAUGHTER AND LICENSE have been literary bunkmates for centuries. But the respectable publishers have never been quite able to decide just where admissible ribaldry ends and pornography begins. The latest borderline case, a first novel by a young U.S. writer, was turned down by every U.S. publisher to whom it was submitted three years ago. Later brought out in broader-minded England and France, it has finally found its way to U.S. audiences through one of the publishers that first rejected it, Grove Press (U.S. purveyors of Henry Miller's two Tropics], perhaps because it now wears on its jacket a plug from Miller himself. It proves astonishingly vulgar of tongue but also refreshingly light of heart.
Misunderstanding is a kind of beat bedroom farce. A college sophomore spends a weekend with a pretty 14-year-old Negro prostitute under the manly misapprehension that she has invited him because she finds him irresistible. The girl, on the other hand, is convinced that it is all to be a paying proposition. Outraged when her guest resists payment. Kitten steals her rightful $100 fee from his pants pocket. He tries to get it back.
Frantic Phonetics. "Christmas!" exclaims James Cartwright ("JC") Holland, "You'd think an intelligent, redblooded, white, church-going non-Communist like I ... would avoid ending up in the nude." JC, who tells about half the story in a stilted diary, is risibly riddled with middle-class hypocrisy. He believes in, and mouths at inappropriate moments, all the sociological double talk, cold war gobbledygook, and commercial jargon that he has ever heard.
Naturally, JC never understands Kitten. Readers, making their way through her frantic, phonetic dialect, in which breathtaking obscenities are so pervasive that they soon cease to shock, will at first sympathize with him. But Author Gover is gleefully staging the classic confrontation between educated fool and ignorant sage. Even in broken English, Kitten soon turns out to be a lot smarter and pleasanter than JC. When he decides to steal her car and keep it until she returns the money, he describes the move "as a last recourse to retaliatory capability, humanely applied as persuasion rather than force per se." Kitten, however, knows this liberty cabbage for the sauerkraut it is: "Extorshun . . . jes like the law."
Jaybird Naked. Of course JC has been warned about iniquity. "The danger of moral cancer, as Dad calls it, is ever present," he explains. But could Dad have prepared him for Kitten's un-American attack on television? She dismisses a global panel discussion that JC is ungallantly watching as "dum rockit rackit." When a western comes on, she screams "Whiteman shootin . . . mothahless madass boom boomin crap." Then, jaybird naked, she picks up the offending set bodily and tries to toss it out the narrow window. She fails. "Yeah! Gee-zuz! Ain nothin else I kin do t'kill that bastid, sep grab him by his lectrick line and pull it—pop I"
"She didn't care at all," JC muses in horror, "—for West Berlin, even!"
Readers may share his shock, not at Kitten's sentiments, but at her harlot SW language. Despite it, Misunderstanding is as funny a book as the season is likely to see.