Scary Old Sex is an unfortunate title to be saddled with for a book of realist short stories about heterosexual relationships and desire, death, illness, and aging. To me, it conjured up a vision of a summer blockbuster by Judd Apatow (starring Adam Sandler), featuring one terrible gag after another involving elderly people trying to have sex in toilets and a nonstop volley of poop and shit jokes.
As it turns out, Arlene Heyman is not too far from Apatovian territory. It’s to be expected, perhaps, that a 70-something psychoanalyst would be far from priggish regarding matters of sex and shit. These stories are redolent with the odours of elderly people’s weakening bowels and the recurring visions of their loosening skin. Pubic hair is not as lush as it once was; for example, Marianne in the collection’s first story, “The Loves of Her Life”, wonders: “Where was that thick bush of yesteryear?” It was a joy — a small one, yes, but nevertheless a real one — to read about a heterosexual woman missing the lushness of the her bush in its prime instead of agonising over how to prune it in order to appear fuckable to yet another disinterested millennial male with an insistent hard-on.
These are not shy, retiring wallflowers, these women who populate these stories. Neither are they particularly sad, grumpy, or disillusioned. It’s refreshing to be in a fictional world where older women are not only having sex, but ripe with desire for it; ripe with desire for the muck and the mess and the ugliness of it, still burning with longing for their aging husbands, like the character in the final story: “It’s been weeks, probably more than two, since she’s felt his balls, held that saggy bag of fruit in her hand, taken him in her mouth. She feels that dull ache again, low down in her.” The curiosity of the reader is perhaps piqued in relation to just how long Heyman can sustain a reader’s interest based on this aspect of novelty alone; the answer is: not long.
From start to finish, we are mostly in the land of still-desirable, attractive straight women. They are fine-boned and slender (still), and they exude an air of chic grace and understated glamour. Perhaps the plainest character of them all, Marilyn in “At the Happy Isles”, is 68 and alone after her lover’s death — she’s the one character who isn’t noticeably having a lot of sex, but is instead cleaning up her 90-plus mother’s shit in the toilet, and sneaking in sips of alcohol throughout lunch at the assisted-living facility where her mother lives. “At age sixty-eight, shouldn’t she already know she can do what she damn pleases?” she wonders, and Heyman’s bittersweet story, full of female body horror of the mature kind, suggests that growing older doesn’t really solve any of the existential questions.
Many of these stories are laugh out loud funny, but Heyman’s writing is so doggedly realistic and attentive to the smallest of details in a way that renders these lives banal and ordinary. Because of this, around the middle of the book, the style begins to wear off into a buzz of tedium.
In the story “Dancing”, there were poignant descriptions of a wife caring for her husband through the last, brutal days of his cancer, and these moments were interspersed with the events of September 11, 2001 in New York. The death of a certain privileged and largely comfortable white New York way of life is unsuccessfully juxtaposed with the death of the husband, and this symbolism feels awkward, even opportunistic, despite the tenderness with which Heyman sketches out their relationship.
Their teenage son’s casual rage at seeing the plane hit the towers, for example, is weird, knowing that as he is experiencing it, it’s unlikely that he will be parsing the events in a logical sequence in order to understand the intent behind the actions of the people who crashed the plane into the buildings. Still, in the flat, affectless tone that Heyman chose to depict the interiority of the teenage boy, he tells us that he feels “frightened and enraged”, and a moment of casual racism involving the term “sand niggers” is simply presented as it is, among American high school students, without any sort of countervailing point of view within the narrative. Instead, the story of collective grief is then individualised and made private within the realm of the bourgeois nuclear family, and the initial racism of the high school students is left to uncomfortably stand for something, as though Muslims will have no choice but to carry the burden of blame since white people — the people Heyman writes about — are suffering.
In a similar way, the wife in the final story, “Nothing Human”, is on a tour of Europe with her husband. Being Jewish, she has plenty of questions about how history played out in the German towns they visit, but she finds her tour guides evasive. Her thoughts about the Jewish question in Europe are also interiorised, leading to no specific intellectual or moral arguments within the story. Her thoughts wander in this way: “Maybe it is an out-of-date concern, unfashionable, shows her age, like wearing one of those fox pelts around your neck with feet attached and full face teeth …”
As she thinks about her stepson, who reminds her that other atrocities have taken place, as well, she lapses into another thought: “She did not do the math to show that all the other genocides put together … No, she refused to enter the genocide contest”. This refusal to enter the genocide contest is not so much the problem, one senses, than a particularly insular American viewpoint that privileges the commemoration and honour of one genocide as the most serious one of all. Abruptly, the character is back to wondering about her relationship with her husband. This, along with the 9/11 story, also brings up political ideas only to subsume them to the individual’s private sexual neuroses.
In the story “Artifact”, second-generation feminist principles surrounding the white female character’s struggles in her profession provides the ideological framework for the character’s dissatisfaction with her career prospects; she finds it impossible to advance in her department even after a favoured African graduate student returns home and is found hanged, after “a coup occurred in a small central African country she had never heard of”. At no point does it bother the character, Lottie, who is focused and devoted to her job, that she has reached such an advanced level of expertise in her field that whole African countries are beneath her notice; it only matters that even African men get more opportunities in America than white American women! Or so that’s the fleeting impression one is left with after that fleeting reference to dead Africans due to political instability in one of the many African countries that no serious, career-climbing American woman has to think about much.
The most autobiographical of all the stories, “In Love With Murray”, features a younger woman with a much older man and is dedicated to Bernard Malamud, with whom Heyman had an affair with in the ’60s when she was 19 and he 47. It’s a sweet, moving, captivating story of love and devotion across the generations, and the costs the younger woman has to bear as muse and (struggling) artist to his well-known, successful career. It’s quite possibly my favourite story in this collection.
On the whole, Heyman definitely has a sharp, witty take on heterosexual relations and is attuned to the comedy inherent in the act itself. It’s necessary that the sexuality of older women is given due and loving attention (even if it is solely heterosexual in this case, and involves mainly still-attractive women who consider their looks a personal point of pride).
Still, there are only so many stories about this topic that one can take before hoping for something with a little more substance to hold onto, so to speak, than a character’s quips about her aging husband’s body. Heyman’s commitment to realism within the short story form combined with the spatial focus on New York and the often insular American point of view of her characters renders the second half of the book largely uninteresting, tepid, and flat. A title like this for a book will either intrigue a reader or turn her off. Too bad the stories don’t really live up to the promise of either attraction or repulsion; these are polished, well-written and stylistically demure and well-behaved stories, and one can only consider them groundbreaking if people still find it shocking that, yes, older people have sex too.