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The Sex Lives of Others

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Intercourse’s boldest and most ethically dangerous moments are its portraits of modern politicians, many of whom are, predictably, grotesque. A young JFK, thinking of himself cockily in the third person, ponders renouncing political ambition forever in a moment of ecstatic pre-orgasmic delay. J. Edgar Hoover gets off by fantasizing about (and recording) JFK. RFK compares his performance obsessively with his more dashing brother. (Marilyn Monroe, pointedly, does not.) Joseph McCarthy, in the middle of consummating his new marriage, becomes overwhelmed with paranoia when his wife breaks eye contact.

The book’s stakes, both aesthetic and legal, seem to rise even higher when Butler channels the sex lives of still-living public figures. For one thing, this puts him in direct artistic competition with the massive energy of transatlantic tabloid culture, whose lurid imagination (cigars, dress stains, potty-mouthed royalty) would require a Tolstoy, or at least a Roth, to improve. Butler’s versions, accordingly, all pretty much follow the script. Prince Charles and Princess Di suffer mechanically through their final time together. George W. Bush conducts a belligerent inner argument with liberal journalists (“I will kick your ass unremittlessly”) while a patient Laura mentally redecorates the Lincoln bedroom (“won’t be long—wallpaper wallpaper”). The ballsiest vignette, the “oh, snap” moment that will make you hunch over protectively on the subway and possibly Google the basic legal definition of slander, is Butler’s depiction of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham as striving twentysomething law students: “this had to be done eventually,” Hillary thinks, and goes on to fantasize about sex on the floor of the Oval Office—“I don’t care if that’s the next time we do this, to be honest with myself, but I choose this time and I will choose some others in between because one day we’ll be fucking on the eagle and there’s a soft knock at the door and the secretary knows not to barge in and she says Madame President, the Soviet premier is on the phone.” Although it’s predictable— perhaps even because it’s predictable—the episode feels convincing, and even, in the dusk of our overheated never-ending primary, poignant. Hillary’s dispassionate scheming is right out of central casting, and recalls all the book’s other political lovers, from Eve to Cleopatra to Henry VIII. Butler seems to be telling us that repetition, above all, is the essence of humankind’s perpetual bump and grind. And, in a world in which all the secrets are out, perhaps the greatest art lies in making us blush anew at what we already know.

Intercourse: Stories
By Robert Olen Butler.
Chronicle Books. $22.95.


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