BUDDING LESBIANS HAVE long deserved a more lubricious rallying cry than Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, which though groundbreaking in 1973 lacks the luxury of irony. And so, for Novel Most Deserving of Mass Air Drops to College Campuses, I hereby nominate Kamikaze Lust. Boasting a plot pregnant with both sex and death, Lauren Sanders's literary debut tackles the big themes from the start.
It begins and ends with a pair of assisted suicides. What binds the two is, of all things, a series of increasingly extreme sexual exploits that culminate in our narrator flying off to Las Vegas with a famously well-endowed ex-porn star (rest assured, sisters--she winds up with a woman). For all its plot pyrotechnics, though, Kamikaze Lust begins in deceptive normality: Grown-up good girl and journalist Rachel Silver spends her 31st birthday with her co-worker Shade chasing a Kevorkian story she can't cover because her newspaper has just gone on strike. A rendezvous with an ex-lover leads to a stopgap job ghostwriting the autobiography of a feminist porn auteur, which lends a decidedly sexual bent to a pending identity crisis.
Despite the headlong plunge into anything-goes territory that follows, Rachel never becomes too terribly unbalanced. Instead she plays the perpetual straight man (excuse the term) to a host of increasingly outlandish situations. This allows her to deliver bons mots like: "You know, I can get this kind of self-help crap anywhere. I didn't have to come to a porno film." Along with discovering her inner porn star (albeit in a self-mocking and marginally humiliating fashion), she also stumbles across her inner "man-primary" lesbian, as well as her previously unacknowledged attraction to Shade, her best friend of six years.
Without wit or heart, this much sex would be unsexy, particularly if the author were using the titillation factor as mere bait for jacket blurbs. Instead, it serves a broader purpose, illustrating that the boundaries we use to demarcate civilized society are largely an illusion, and that labels like "porn star," "cancer patient," and "lesbian" are meant to signify--falsely--"people nothing like us." Here sex bleeds so naturally into life, and life into sex, that books that shy from this human realm begin to seem prissy and suspect.
Too, there is much to savor outside the bedroom, including a strong ensemble portrait of a vaguely dysfunctional but nevertheless nuclear family. This crew is gathered around a dying aunt, each individual drawn with the same sharp, compassionate eye and lack of easy judgment. In fact, the two most intimate scenes occur outside the bedroom. In the first, Rachel and the porn star RR trade obscene amounts of money in a game of onanistic one-upmanship at the breakfast table, spinning further and further from reality with every hour that goes by. In the second, securely returned to the world, Rachel keeps her dying aunt company.
In these final hours, Sanders manages to knit together Rachel's far-flung adventures in a surprisingly coherent and wistful wrap-up--a melancholy cigarette after a long, intimate night.