Leslie Schwartz’s award-winning first novel, Jumping the Green, begins with the sentence: "My discovery of masturbation is accompanied by the sudden epiphany that lovers slap each other around." Young Louise Goldblum is floating in the neighbors’ swimming pool, her hand between her thighs, observing their scufflings and tearful embraces, when she’s overcome by this double revelation. The pages that immediately follow, through descriptions of an unhappy suburban childhood — her parents "poolside with the Kowolskis, getting soused on watermelon nui-nui and sangria," fighting and flirting with other people’s spouses — subtly explore the relationships between desire and violence, love and disgust. "When I come," later that night, Schwartz writes, "the shrieks of my parents’ argument drift through the walls and into my room, where they float around in the sweaty, shameful aftermath of a hundred butterflies alighting from my naked, exhausted body."
Schwartz tackles these same relationships with far less success in chapters set in present-day San Francisco, in which Louise, all grown up and traumatized by her sister’s recent murder, indulges in a newfound "penchant for one-night stands and vodka for breakfast" that eventually leads her to Zeke, a goateed and tattooed photographer who shows her "a new terrain of caustic pleasure." Zeke likes to tear off her clothes, slap her, humiliate her, and drop pretentious and silly remarks like "Take away the cunt and you take away the power." Louise is entranced: "The meaner he was, the more I wanted him."
Zeke, unfortunately, is not merely mean, he is dull, as are, for the most part, his and Louise’s S/M couplings. Meanwhile, Louise, equally obsessed with Zeke and her murdered sister, Esther — the second least interesting character in the novel — spirals into self-destruction while everyone she knows tells her over and over to pull herself together. Not to worry, it’s clear from the get-go that everything will turn out okay. In the literature of self-discovery, no suffering goes unredeemed.
Thankfully, Jumping the Green is studded with returns to Louise’s pre-Zekean youth. Childhood memories of a trip to the drive-in with her alcoholic mother, during which her mom sneaks off between the cars with Mr. Kowolski, of catching her sister fellating a teenage boyfriend, are vastly more evocative and less forced than the simplistic sadomasochism of the nefarious Zeke. And they betray enough skill to suggest that Schwartz can write a better novel than this one.
The rough sex in Gary Phillips’ The Jook is a bit more fun, and funnier. The book starts with Zelmont Raines, a washed-up former pro football player trying to get back in the game, cruising South-Central to chase down the punks who owe him money, then heading over to his girlfriend’s for a quickie. Davida, a Paula Abdul–wannabe superstar, likes to be choked with her own panties as Zelmont "jug[s] her coochie from behind." When she turns up dead a few chapters later, strangled with the very same panties, the cops think Zelmont’s their man.
That, however, is just the beginning of Zelmont’s troubles. The Bible-thumping football commissioner, who frowns on Zel’s less than role-model-perfect behavior (well-publicized sexual foibles and a lingering affair with the crack pipe), won’t let him play pro again. Meanwhile, he’s got a lifestyle to maintain, statutory-rape charges to fend off ("All I got was a couple of blow jobs for all the goddamn trouble that handicapped chick caused me") and alimony payments to the onetime "big-legged 19-year-old high school dropout sports groupie" who bore him an unwanted and unseen son ("and I only did her ã twice"). So against his better judgment, he lets a flamboyantly bisexual Dennis Rodman–esque football buddy and the vixenish lawyer for the fledgling L.A. expansion team, the Falcons, talk him into stealing millions in cash from the Falcons’ owner and his Serbian mob-boss cousin. Thereafter, the pages are soaked in blood and semen.
Zelmont, if it’s not already clear, is a Hall of Fame–quality asshole, unremittingly homophobic, misogynistic and self-absorbed. But he makes no excuses for himself, and neither does Phillips. The result, in addition to some entertaining reading, is a precious quality rarely found in crime novels: ambiguity.
The characters in Donald Rawley’s Tina in the Backseat inhabit a very different Los Angeles than Gary Phillips’ testosterone-slicked city, a post-AIDS version of James M. Cain’s L.A. of suburban despair. Rawley died of AIDS in 1998, and death hangs heavily over these 13 stories, populated by characters who are alone, desperate and searching, be it in a Beverly Hills mansion, a pai go parlor in Gardena, a limo speeding out to Palm Springs or a "small but nicely decorated condo in Canoga Park."Desperate is a big word for Rawley. It crops up more than once, perhaps most notably in the first line of "Saigon" ("Life’s a desperate thing. That’s what Virgil told me and I didn’t believe him."), among the best stories here, about the delicate friendship between the lonely and detached narrator, dying of AIDS, and Virgil, a drunken veteran who lost his legs in Vietnam and waxes nostalgic about the sublime chaos of wartime Saigon. It’s there again in "The Closest Thing to God" ("Some of us search for God in the woods, and some of us find God under the living-room sofa. Some of us, the pilgrims among us, search in dense cities and small towns, but in the long run we either die young or we die old, and that’s when the desperation begins"), the lovely and comparatively upbeat tale of Iris, a butch lesbian ambulance driver, who suffers from an un- requited crush on the glamorous Dot.