Larry McCaffery

Dust Devil

A Preface

"I stand for the touch of bodily awareness between human beings," he [Mellors] said to himself, "and the touch of tenderness. And she is my mate. And it is a battle against the money, and the machine, and the insentient ideal monkeyishness of the world."

–D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover



If you’ve spent as much time pounding the experimental literary pavements as I have, you get used to deadlines; knowing that some illiterate managing editor goon type is breathing down your neck threatening to postpone the publication of some project you or one of your Private Editorial buddies have spent months or even years assembling unless you deliver the prefatory goods has always had a way of focusing my concentration.

This being a preface, I suppose I’m supposed to supply a little background about how the anthology came to happen, toss in a few catchy phrases, supply a narrative that helps explain why this particular collection is so new, so "now," so much better than all the other similar anthologies. But since this preface has to be handed over to Hemmingson in the next six hours–and since not handing it over to him is likely to have consequence far more serious than just delaying the publication of this anthology–let’s dispense with the usual prefatory clichés and cut to the chase.

I was just deciding to call it quits last night. Outside my office, an enormous dust storm was raging out in the Borrego badlands. It was the kind of desert night that Paul Bowles might have used as the backdrop to torture one of his naive fools into a deeper appreciation of the ways of the world.

Literary clients being as scarce in late July out here as an oasis with bikini-clad teenage girls lounging around in the sun and shading themselves under looming palm trees, I was passing the time yesterday] afternoon trying to finish up the porn novel I hoped to peddle to Grove–quality stuff, mind you, not the usual wham-bam-thank-me-m’am formula, with two dimensional characters eagerly thrusting Tab A or B into tab C, D, E, or F–but something with serious literary ambitions (and if this penetrating tome didn’t work for Grove, I could always try Blue Moon). On this particular afternoon, I’d asked my secretary, Lyna, to help me out with a certain scene that was giving me trouble. I find I always work best when I’m writing out of my own personal experience–not that my work is autobiographical, mind you, but sometimes my imagination needs a kick in the pants. Lyna was, as always, a lot of help–she was a twenty-something Greek bombshell graduate student who’d shown up at my doorstep several weeks earlier asking for help doing research on her cyberpunk thesis at UCSD. A quick glance at her c.v. and reference letters–and a more careful perusal of her tanned legs, perky tits, rich dark hair, and pouty, pouty mouth–I quickly determined we could come to some sort of arrangement that would suit both our needs. As an exchange for providing her with research tips about cyberpunk, she agreed to handle my secretarial chores during the summer, plus provide tutoring lessons in ancient Greek (a recent passion). I found her bright and eager to please, in addition to taking masterful dictation; she had all the secretarial skills a Private Editor could ask.

And she was an incredible fuck.

Anyway, when this whole thing got started, Lyna and I were working up a kind of re-enactment of a scene from my Grove Press hopeful. Having already spent the afternoon wading through all that drearily predictable anthology crap, I was anxious to develop something in my own work that was genuinely transgressive. That’s where Lyna came into the picture–or rather into the video camera, which I’d set up on a tripod to provide a record of our transgressions.

"And...action!" I said, pushing the video cam’s remote button to RECORD.

"I absolutely love to fuck,"1 Lyna was saying, as I worked my fingers into her warm wet pussy. Her thick Greek accent, so full of Mediterranean smells and sensual mysteries, charmingly transformed her opening lines into something that sounded like "eye apsoulootly luff to fok." Lyna was lying spread eagle on my desk, her skirt bunched up near her tits, her panties dangling on one ankle. I was just starting to push the tip of my throbbing dick into the wet darkness of her thick brown bush when Lyna broke character.

"Just a second, Mac, " she gasped, "I don’t understand my motivation in this scene. I thought I was supposed to be a sexually inexperienced babysitter you were trying to seduce one night while your wife was on vacation. So why would I be saying something like this?" I always get a little irritated when my concentration is broken, and began taking it out on Lyna by biting her big brown nipples. Evidently she didn’t take the hint, because she cried out, "Oh, what does this mean?!"

"Goddamn it, haven’t we gone over this a thousand times already?"2 I said. I roughly began rubbing my fingers over her thick dark bush. "It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything," I explained as patiently as I could under the circumstances. "That line is the opening to Kathy Acker’s early meta-porn classic, I Dreamed I Was a Nymphomaniac. " I just threw it in to add a kind of literary texture, an intertextual reference: "I’m not looking for simple mimesis here but a kind of crazed passion, characters are deliberately two dimensional, but with just enough detail so that readers can project their own sexual fantasies." I replaced my finger with my tongue.

"Okay, Mac, if you say so," Lyna murmured dubiously, "but . . . " I ignored her blatherings about Deleuze and Guattari and the denaturing of the body, concentrating instead on pushing my tongue as far up inside her warm wet pussy as I could, when we heard the commotion outside the office. Someone was banging on the door.

Lyna jumped, pulled up her panties, smoothed down her skirt, and rushed to the outer office to perform her proper duties as my secretary. I made myself a tequila-and-tonic, with plenty of extra salt on the glass.

I could hear some mumbling, then a loud deep voice uttering something I couldn’t quite understand. Then silence.

Lyna’s voice came over the intercom: "Mac, there’s somebody here to see you."

"Tell ‘em we’ve closed down for the night."

"He sez it cunt wait. Mac, I think you’d better see this guy–he seems pretty desperate, he keeps saying the same thing over and over again, ‘Wot the fok.’"

"What’s his name?"

"Says it’s Hemmingson." Suddenly, I got very interested. "Michael Hemmingson." Oh Christ.

"Send him in, darlin’," I said, trying not to sound as upset as I was feeling. "And while we’re in here, why don’t you practice your lines?"

There was in my biz what we like to call a "pregnant pause," and then Mike Hemmingson came through the door.

The fact that Mike Hemmingson was standing there in my office wasn’t all that surprising–I’d gotten to know him years earlier when I was still working out of a tiny San Diego Gaslamp Quarter office. Over the years, there had been a lot of rumors circulating about his bizarre literary and personal behavior, but along the way he had run up an impressive string of publications. Right now, though, it was pretty obvious that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Mike Hemmingson was a mess. He looked like one of those booze hounds at the end of a Ray Carver story: at his wits end, bewildered, fumbling for an explanation to life. His hair was matted, face sun-scorched and dust-caked, eyes wild; rivulets of sweat were carving channels through the dust on his face, producing the same kind of braided alluvial fan patterns you see at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Other than the crazed look he had plastered on his tush, the only thing he was wearing was a pair of men’s boxer shorts with prints of various cocktail drinks all around.

What the fuck? I thought to myself, not particularly eloquent, it pretty much captured a sense of the moment; but before I could actually say anything, Hemmingson blurted out: "What the fuck!" It would prove to be one of the screwiest bits of dialogue I’ve ever been involved with.

He actually croaked the phrase weakly, staggering to the chair in front of my desk. I looked him over suspiciously. How the hell had he known what I was thinking?

"What the fuck?" I demanded.

"What the fuck," Hemmingson repeated. I couldn’t decide if he was delirious, deliberately mocking me, or even aware that he was here. That’s when I noticed the bulge rising ominously out of his boxer shorts–it was hard to tell in the fading twilight, but it looked like somebody had stapled a 300-page manuscript to his groin.

Wanting to escape from this monotonous dialogue, and sensing Hemmingson could use a change in direction, I smiled and said, very softly, "Is that a manuscript you’ve got there in your underpants, Mike, or are you just happy to see me?" Hemmingson ignored my overture, was in no mode for levity. Painfully he began pulling the manuscript away from his belly, with a strange groan that I hoped wasn’t pleasure-filled . Once he managed to separate himself from the manuscript, he held the thing out in front of me, and dropped it. The bundled pages made a soft plop on my desk. Something screwy was going on, all right.

"What the fuck?" I asked Hemmingson again.

"What the fuck."

This was getting tiresome. Instead of trying to break out of this prison house of language we seemed caught in, I looked down at the bloody pages. First thing that caught my eye was the cover–a familiar Rockwell painting of boy scouts, only instead of building a campfire they had a blonde bombshell trussed up like a turkey. Beneath the bloody smudges were the words, What the Fuck: The Avant-Porn Anthology.

"What the fuck??" I said, slowly, indicating to Hemmingson the cover and title. I was beginning to understand...I think.

"What the fuck," Hemmingson said. Then, with what seemed like enormous effort, he took in a deep breath and then very, very slowly--enunciating each word with such ease that I was certain he’d learned this technique during his days as a stage director at The Fritz--he finally managed to break us out of our monotonous "what-the-fuck" exchange.

"Mac, something weird happened to me out in the badlands and I need your help!"

I nodded. "Okay, but before we get going here, we gotta get a few things straight..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know–you get 25 bucks a day plus expenses, a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and no committee work. Jesus, Mac, cut the crap, this is serious!"

"Maybe you’d better start from the beginning."

At my prompt, Hemmingson set off into a delirious monologue that initially seemed like pure babel, a stream of non-sequitars that can best be described as a mixture of John Ashbery’s poetry, random selections from Moby Dick, and sound bytes from Gordon Lish’s lectures on the art of writing. But as the words kept pouring out his mouth, I began to notice that his monobabeloque was carving a strange, utterly terrifying narrative from of the bedrock of what was left of his mind. A few of the edited highlights went something like this:

"...the planetary alignment, so I decided to locate the vortex over in the Fish Creek Wash area . . . not bothered bringing my canteen, figuring my flask of white Russians . . . the quarter and the dime...midafternoon dust storm . . . lost and feeling faint...must have been somewhere in the Split Mountain Area when suddenly . . . abducted by UFOs. Pikachu! Art Bell! Lizard Women! . . . Jellyfish-like creatures all being lead by a 10-foot tall Dennis Rodman lookalike! These were no Cnidarians! They were worse than Mormons! . . . USED me! . . . came to they had me strapped to a metal table . . . weird alien muzak playing in the background . . . lizard lady was giving me a blow-job . . . several orgasms, then I must have passed out . . to again, there were probes up my ass...another round . . . gang -raped by lizard ladies... Dennis Rod-Man was whispering horrible, nasty things into my ear! . . . awoke to find I’d been left near Font’s Point with this manuscript stapled to my tummy . . . departing in their ship, transmitting a final message to me via some mode of telepathy . . . an ultimatum: I had 24 hours to arrange a book deal for this manuscript AND get somebody to write a preface for it or they’d make sure I never worked again!"

Hemmingson was out of words, but the sobs that now wracked his body spoke eloquently about his anguish. Reaching over and gently taking his hand, I tried to talk him down. "Maybe they’re bluffing," I said. "I mean, how are–"

"They’re not bluffing, Mac!!! They’ve injected me with some kind of time-released cold wartime Russian mycrotoxin; unless they provide me with an anecdote, it will begin erasing all my literary values and memories at precisely 8 am." He added, "Tomorrow morning."

"Yeah, I heard the Rooskies were using this stuff. The damage will be minute, subtle, and utterly effective."

"Look, Mac," he was pleading now, his eyes filled with a kind of terror you only see on a first-time novelist who has learned that his publisher may go out of business before releasing the book, "You gotta help me. If you don’t write this preface for me" he hesitated, "I’ll be a Literary Zombie!"

He shuttered involuntarily, and looked down at the floor blankly.

"Okay, Mike, don’t go all gooey on me. I’ll take the case." For the first time since he stumbled into my office, a hint of hope and relief crossed his sand-ravaged face. I said, "Before I begin my investigation, I need to get some clarification about some of the points you mentioned. Like, this whole bit about the manuscript, making you get a publisher–I just don’t get it. What’s their angle? Money? "

"Naw, they don’t give a shit about the money. As near as I can figure, the only thing these guys ever want is a good fuck–they’re not just sexually obsessed but jaded. They tool around the local galaxy clusters looking for planets with life forms they turn into their sex slaves. But these guys aren’t just interested in fucking, per se–their agenda is world domination! Not by brute force, weapons, lasers, or Independence Day tactics. They’re much more subtle. They send down an advanced guard of writers and artists who infiltrate the local literary scene and begin publishing fiction encoded to alter all who read it. You read their work, reality suddenly changes, nothing makes sense, and you’re forced to be their pleasure slaves, willing to do whatever they command–all sorts of perversities; and golden, roman, and brown showers don’t even begin to illustrate their lascivious behavior. Why, they’re weirder than the Japanese when it comes to porn!"

Maybe my jaw dropped. "You’re telling me that all the stories in What the Fuck are written by aliens?" I asked.


"So," I said thoughtfully, "what kind of stuff is it? If it’s commercial stuff–or any of that Carver-Iowa-workshop crap–you know I can’t help you."

"Don’t worry, Mac, I wouldn’t have showed up here if it was anything like that–it’s porn." He leaned toward my desk and winked. "Really filthy stuff."

"Yeah, so where do I fit in?"

"It’s not just the usual porn, Mac–the aliens are already bored with that stuff. No, this is something different–it’s WEIRD porn, literary porn, twisted, filthy stuff–but lyrical, if you know what I mean."

"Uh-huh," I uh-huhed.

"Mac, I’m scared, really scared. These aliens said if I didn’t play ball with them by getting a book deal for this anthology, they would …" His voice cracked

"Go on, Mike, let it all come out" I said gently. In between his sobs, Hemmingson filled in the details of what the aliens had in store for him if he didn’t play ball. It wasn’t pretty: without an antidote, Hemmingson was to be relegated to publishing his books and stories in the small and university presses; each new work would be a clone of the other; he’d never progress or transgress; he’d never command an advance over $1500; and that his recent deals with Tor Books and St. Martin’s Press and the money would vanish as quickly as a load of sperm on Monica Lewinsky’s tongue.

I’d heard enough, and cut him off with a wave of my hand. "Okay, Mike, you’ve had a rough day. Give me a few hours and I’ll see what I can come up with. Once I get a editorial handle on what the fuck’s up with this manuscript, I’ll get your preface written. In the meantime, why don’t you head over to Carlee’s and suck up a few tequilas-and-tonics--just be sure and ask for salt to balance your electrolytes. Tonight’s karaoke night–you might want to get up and perform a couple of numbers, let some of that tension loose."

"Yeah, Mac, not a bad idea. He stood, stopped, turned, and asked, "They gonna have any problem with my outfit?"


* * * *

After Hemmingson left my office, I called Lyna in to finish the babysitter scene. She didn’t answer. I called for her again. No answer. My first thought was she had maybe been abducted by Hemmingson’s aliens. Then I looked out my window and saw Lyna walking with Hemmingson towards Carlee’s Bar and Grill.

"Goddamn it," I muttered. If it wasn’t enough that Hemmingson had interrupted the scene from my novel, as well as the pleasures of that particular text, and putting me on a case I wasn’t prepared to take on, he was now taking off to karaoke with my Greek cyberpunk grad student and her warm wet pussy.

I poured a hefty shooter of bourbon. What else was there to do? I settled in, sifting through the manuscript for clues about what I was going to say in my preface. Every private editor has their own way of solving a literary case. And despite all the essays I’d written about postmodernism, deconstruction, and other theory-oriented literary topics, I was from the old-school–which is to say that all I was ready to examine each story and espouse some jargon. Theory was a suckers games. All I was interested in was the textual facts, m’am, just the facts.

According to the PE Code, §3133.69, Private Editors are supposed to approach their work "keeping a safe editorial ‘distance’ and objectivity, never allowing their personal or sexual feelings concerning any elements of the case to be expressed." I was a little nervous–not only that what I had to say was likely to alter the entire direction of human and extraterrestrial sexuality, but that I knew from personal experience that writing about eroticism was, to paraphrase Georges Bataille, not just a problem but "the problem of problems."3

A few hours later, there were only a few selections left to examine. While absent-mindedly rolling a fag, I looked out my window. A bright full moon was already beginning its westward descent towards the Laguna Mountains. It didn’t take a Yale-trained expert in Bataille or Sade to be able to recognize that Hemmingson was right about What the Fuck?. All the clues indicated that this was porn all right–and not the kind of softcore form that that tends to stereotype, flattening sexuality into conventions that will not disturb its audience, where sex is made compatible with the prevailing sentiments of the culture, the kind that titillates its audience with animalism, but seeks to socialize that myth by sublimating its physical egocentric energies into materialist culture analogue of sprit: the myth of sentimentality. No, the porn selections in What the Fuck were obviously very something different; literate, yes, but also dangerously transgressive–something...alien.

I knew time was running out, and started to go through some of the opening lines I was thinking about using in my preface. If, then, literature is a mode of knowledge disobliged to the univocal presuppositions of an idealistic dialectic deriving its authority rather from the existential imagination, it is not only qualified to express a mythic sensibility but it may help that sensibility to change, to assimilate the seemingly undamnable stream of new truths being revealed to it. Whereby avant-porn enters a genre...

Nah. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I was obviously feeling drowsy.

I knew I needed to clear my head, devise some prefatory remarks that would uplifting, seductive: but based on what? I went back over Hemmingson’s testimony that none of the writers in What the Fuck were real–or human, even if some of the names were well-known; and that the whole manuscript was penned by alien lifeforms. But how the hell was that bit of evidence going to help me write my preface? Fighting panic, I decided to go back and conclude my preliminary investigation by finishing up all the selections.

That’s when I came across "Cyrano of the English Department"--a selection that had my name on it. I stifled a scream.

Suddenly, everything was all too clear--so clear I knew I couldn’t read any further. As to my preface, well, nix on that as well, even if my failure was going to cast Hemmingson into literary-zombie land.

I tossing the manuscript into the trash, reminding myself that I needed to invest in a paper shredder. It was then that I noticed I hadn’t turned off the video cam. I was curious about reviewing my talk with Hemmingson, so I turned the cam off, rewound it, and played it back. I watched, with a smile, the brief scene with Lyna, as my fingers and tongue began to probe her divine fulcrum. I fastforwarded past the commotion and Lyna’s departure, and picked things up again with me sitting at my desk, awaiting Hemmingson’s entrance.

It never came.

On the video screen I could me sitting there at my desk, occasionally talking and gesturing, but the room was empty. I replayed the tape several times but the results were always the same: Hemmingson never appeared in the video. He wasn’t there at all.

This was becoming too much like a Philip K. Dick story, so I had another shot of bourbon and decided to call it a night and go home, perhaps watch a Sumo wrestling match on satellite or put Springsteen’s Nebraska into the CD player to fall asleep to.

I stepped out of my office in a bit of a daze, almost stepping on a rattlesnake, which scuttled away into the shrub. There was something weird in the air. The dust devils had vanished. Everything was dead still, the usual sounds of mockingbirds mixing in with the occasional mournful howls of coyotes. I looked up and saw a gyrating compass of flame moving towards me from over the Pinyon Mountains at warp velocity. A beam of blue light emerged from the saucer and packets of radiant energy rippled in ticklish waves over my face, filling my head with Avant-pornographic insights. As a river of words cascaded down into my consciousness, a prefatory form was assembled, and a flood of relief washed over me. I knew then I could now write Hemmingson’s precious preface after all--and that he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life as a literary zombie.

Moments later, the saucer was gone and I found myself alone in the darkness. That’s when I heard the plaintive sounds of karaoke music drifting towards me from Carlee’s--it was Hemmingson’s deep rich baritone belting out the Sid Vicious cover version of "My Way." Lyra was supplying the harmony. I headed back inside. I had an 8 a.m. deadline to meet--and a porn novel to finish.

July 2000: Borrego Springs, CA