Thursday, December 11, 2014
Sweeter Than Candy
Sweeter Than Candy, by Cynthia Wilkerson
No month stated, 1978 Belmont Tower Books
I wrote two books as Cynthia Wilkerson. The first one was disgusting. The second one was slightly less disgusting. -- Len Levinson, in a phone conversation with me in April, 2012
The more scarce of the two novels Len wrote as “Cynthia Wilkerson,” Sweeter Than Candy is “in the tradition of” a now-forgotten piece of bestselling 1970s sleaze titled Blue Skies, No Candy, by Gael Greene. Len told me this when I spoke to him the other year, saying that if his own novel was “disgusting,” so was Greene’s. When I asked him again recently about his novel, Len told me:
[Belmont Tower editor] Milburn Smith told me to write something like Blue Skies, No Candy, which was very popular back then; I think it was on the Times bestseller list. So I read Blue Skies, decided it was quite trashy, and decided to out-trash it. The plot, characters, etc. of Sweeter were all mine. In a sense, it was my response to Blue Skies. In order to review Sweeter, you probably should read Blue Skies which inspired it.
At 265 pages, not only is Sweeter Than Candy one of the longer books of Len’s I’ve yet read, it’s also by far the most trashy, sleazy, and explicit. Like Greene’s novel, this one is narrated by its female (anti)hero: Vivian Sinclair, the 35 year-old “sexual terror of Manhattan” who makes her living as a drama critic for a small New York newspaper.
With blonde hair, big boobs, and “the greatest ass in the world,” Vivian is a regular man-eater, “fucking and sucking” practically every guy she meets – much to the chagrin of her Columbia professor of a husband, Roger, who starts off the novel by informing Vivian one day that he’s divorcing her. After getting over her shock – Vivian thought she and Roger had an understanding, as they both have had multiple affairs – our heroine consoles herself that she no longer will have a husband.
Not that she suffers much. The novel occurs over a few weeks, and I think Vivian only spends one night alone (and even then she gives herself a “finger-job”). Moments after her husband’s left her, Vivian puts on her “warpaint” (ie makeup), some sexy clothes, and leaves her fashionable Greenwich Village apartment with its “ultra-modern furniture” and goes to a nearby bar, where she promptly picks up Steve, a good-looking young cocaine dealer.
At Steve’s place there follows a super-explicit sex sequence that goes on for fifteen pages(!). Len leaves no stone unturned here, as the two fuck like crazy. These sex scenes bring to mind Len’s earlier novel Where The Action Is, which also featured a female narrator relating every detail of her sex life, however Sweeter Than Candy is all about the sex, with no espionage or mystery subplot to get in the way.
A recurring thing in the novel is that Vivian fights with just about everyone, especially men right before she screws them, but during the act she’ll tell them she loves them. I think Vivian tells about four guys “I love you” in the course of the novel. Steve’s no different, but he disappears from the novel after their herculean sexual bout; next up is Dudley Tarbush, a Broadway director who has been sleeping with Vivian for years.
In fact, Vivian’s soon-to-be-ex Roger comes home the next day, hoping to mend things with Vivian, only to find her and Tarbush fucking on the kitchen floor! To make it even wackier and crazier, Len even brings Tarbush’s wife, Beverley, onto the scene, so that Tarbush and Vivian now find themselves openly caught in the act by their spouses. The two spouses leave, vowing costly divorces, but Tarbush gets over it soon, telling Vivian he’s always loved her and got married in the first place just to make her jealous.
I thought this would prove to be the plot of Sweeter Than Candy, Vivian and Tarbush falling in love while getting vengeance on their spouses, but it isn’t; in fact, Vivian and Roger have made up well before novel’s end. Like most other Len Levinson novels, this one isn’t straightjacketed by much of a plot, and instead comes off like our narcissistic and sex-crazed protagonist going from one adventure to the next.
Vivian soon finds herself giving a blowjob to Doug Gallagher, the Burt Reynolds-esque star who’s come to New York to promote his new theater production of Hamlet. Soon after this she’s trying to “make a man” out of a gay tenant of her apartment building, the sharply-dressed and charming Timothy Peabody. We get all sorts of stuff here that would be unprintable in today’s blandified world, as the things Vivian thinks and says about Peabody would be considered quite inappropriate in our modern age.
But Len is just setting us up. The joke turns out to be on Vivian, for after inviting “Mr. Peabody” to a theater opening with her (where she forces her hand down his pants and jerks him off, much to his horror and discomfort), she demands that he let her into his apartment that night…and soon discovers that Mr. Peabody isn’t gay at all! Instead, his name is Craig and he gets off on posing as a homosexual, so women will try a little harder for him. You see, Craig finds sex so easy these days that there’s no challenge to getting laid, so he’s come up with this little game.
Now, all this is relayed after Vivian has practically raped the guy, blowing him in super-explicit detail and then demanding that he go down on her. But Craig’s such an expert “cunt-lapper” that Vivian instantly suspects something. Not that she’s too crestfallen, as in Craig Peabody Vivian has found her ideal match: a narcissistic sex-fiend who is every bit as depraved, opinionated, and mean-hearted as she. They even call each other “Bastard” and “Bitch” while fucking, with Craig telling Vivian flat-out that he hates her – that is, before telling her he loves her while they’re going at it once again.
The (sort of) main plot comes to a head again as Vivian, post-coitus, realizes that Craig could really help her out in her upcoming divorce from Roger, who by the way is attempting to sue Vivian for alimony(!). In a protracted caper Vivan and Tarbush fool Tarbush’s wife Beverley into thinking she’s about to be interviewed for a tell-all book about Broadway, but instead she’s seduced by Craig, and their ensuing sex is captured on film. This is then used to prevent Tarbush from paying Beverley alimony, and also to destroy Beverley’s credibility as a reliable witness for Roger.
But Len’s characters are always seeking happiness, even when they’ve found it, and Craig promptly breaks it off with Vivian, telling her he doesn’t trust her, thus she can’t be his perfect match. This occurs around page 160, and Vivian pines for him throughout the 100 or so remaining pages of the novel, even when she and Roger have gotten back together in an open relationship that’s even more open than it was before.
The incident which causes their reunion is another of the novel’s many highlights. In the opening of the tale Roger informs Vivian that he’s leaving her for a young, pretty co-ed named Taffy. Much later in the novel, after being dumped by Craig, Vivian goes into a bar to get drunk. She’s soon checking out the super-hot waitress. Guess what her name turns out to be? That’s right – Taffy. It’s none other than the “tramp” Roger left her for, though a clueless Taffy tells Vivian that she herself has now left Roger, once she found out he was going to sue his ex-wife for alimony.
Not letting Taffy know who she is, Vivian sets about on yet another of her madcap plans: namely, taking this lovely young woman home and having hot lesbian sex with her! And after smoking a little pot the two do just that, with yet another protracted sex scene as they go down on each other in the bathtub. And in a funny callback to the earlier part, Roger once again walks in on the scene! (Strangely Len does not write the three-way I expected, with Taffy fleeing in shock from these two “freaks.”)
Vivian and Roger back together again, you’d think the novel would end…but there are still 40 or so pages to go. Len introduces an eleventh hour subplot about Sir Richard Tysedale, a reclusive British billionaire who is about to buy out Vivian’s paper. Tysedale owns papers all over the world, this being the first in New York he’ll appropriate, and in each previous case he’s always fired the old staff. Realizing her job’s on the line, Vivian finds out from a rich friend that Tysedale lives in a mansion on the moors of Scotland.
Purchasing a last-second ticket, Vivian takes off alone for the UK (blowing the good-looking guy in the seat next to her and screwing him upon their arrival in Scotland), where she’s determined to corner an interview wihth Tysedale, who has never before granted such a thing. When she meets the old recluse, Vivian once again finds a kindred spirit, an opinionated, high-born racist who hates the lower classes, minorities, and gays with even more vehemence than Vivian. After granting her interview, Tysedale then asks Vivian to “make pee-pee and poo-poo” on him in a bathtub!!
Thankfully Len doesn’t write this particular scene, but when we meet Vivian again she’s back in Manhattan, loving life as the managing editor of Beautiful People Magazine, another of Tysedale’s recently-purchased New York publications. In other words, Vivian is given the happy ending I figured she’d be denied, achieving her worldly dreams and, despite still being married to Roger, engaging in open affairs with a variety of men.
The one sad spot in her life is her unrequited love for Craig Peabody, as she still finds herself obsessed with him. Len ends the novel with the tantalizing chance that there could be sequel, someday, with Vivian declaring that, no matter what, she will find Craig, but if Len actually did plan to write another book about Vivian Sinclair he must’ve changed his mind. His other book as “Cynthia Wilkerson” was an unrelated novel more akin to a category Romance, and Len considers that one the superior of the two.
Len’s writing is as ever strong and enjoyable; there are tons of lines and pieces of dialog that are rife for quoting, but I’m a lazy man. He covers all the bases from the sleazy to the profound. He does though slip in and out of present tense at times, which makes for an awkward read given that the novel is in past tense. Also, the book is littered with typos and misprintings, though this isn’t Len’s doing; it’s the usual subpar Belmont Tower “editing” at work.
One of the more interesting things about Sweeter Than Candy is that Vivian Sinclair is like the antagonists of trashy bestsellers of the day, like the sort of stuff that made Jacqueline Susann rich and famous. She’s vituperative, shrill, self-centered beyond the point of narcissism, opionated, arrogant, highfalutin, racist, manipulative, untrustworthy, and basically just a general bitch.
Yet as the narrator, Vivian presents herself to us as the hero of the tale, which makes for an interesting reading experience – and a fun reading experience, for sure. But I can’t say Vivian is a character I much liked. After reading her self-obsessed thoughts for almost 300 pages, I kind of hoped she’d get some sort of comeuppance, but it never happens – she ends the tale just as blissfully vain as she was in the beginning.
This is not to take away from the novel itself, which is a fun and sleazy romp through late 1970s New York City. As I read it, it occurred to me that Sweeter Than Candy was yet another of Len’s novels that would’ve gotten a lot more attention if it had been published by an outfit with better distribution -- the very scarcity of Sweeter Than Candy suggests that it likely had a small print run. It’s a shame, really, as the novel deserved a better fate.
Len offered to write up his thoughts on Sweeter Than Candy, and as usual his “addendum” is just as entertaining as the novel itself:
I volunteered to write an addendum to Joe’s review of Sweeter Than Candy by Cynthia Wilkerson, who in real life was none other than me. I wonder what Cynthia’s fans would think if they discovered she’d grown a beard.
To the best of my recollection, it all began in 1977 on an afternoon when I was sitting in the editorial office of Belmont-Tower in New York City, beside the desk of one of my editors, Milburn Smith. I don’t remember where my usual editor, Peter McCurtin, was that day.
After initial pleasantries, Milburn asked me to write something similar to a novel that was on the best-seller lists then: Blue Skies, No Candy by Gael Greene, which was much discussed in the media as a sensationally erotic breakthrough in feminist literature. A friend referred to it as "Blue Skies, No Panties." Ms. Greene also was a well-known restaurant critic for New York magazine.
After leaving BT’s offices, I bought a copy of Blue Skies, took it home, read it front to back, and evaluated it as pedestrian middlebrow smut. My only reasonable response was to out-smut it, a challenge for which I felt fully qualified, given my smutty brain during my younger years.
I’ve just now finished reading Sweeter Than Candy for the first time since I delivered the manuscript in 1977. Approximately 60% percent of the novel is hard core erotica spiced with zany comedic overtones. The rest is a satire on NYC snobbery and pretentiousness, also spiced with zany comedic overtones.
A few times I laughed out loud at my own words written around 37 years ago. The sexually overactive lead character Vivian Sinclair, drama critic for a daily newspaper, is hilarious in her hypocrisy, silliness, self-deceptions and ruthless ambition. The plot firmly held my attention with its unexpected twists and turns drizzled with sparkling dialogue.
It was fun to write a novel under a woman’s name, from a woman’s point of view. The National Organization of Women probably will put me before a firing squad if they ever read this novel, but I only was trying to lampoon certain NYC women who considered themselves completely progressive, far above traditional morality, going from love affair to love affair, perhaps getting married a few times along the way, always on the lookout for hedonistic pleasures, gold diggers par excellence, not above one-night-stands, and naturally seeing psychiatrists regularly.
Unfortunately, there are many typos in Sweeter Than Candy, but BT was not known for its copy editing skills. For example, on page 196, a Greenwich Village bar was referred to as the Nebraska Midnight. On page 198 it had become Dakota Midnight. Such errors must have been very disconcerting for readers. The bar was based on the Montana Eve on the west side of 7th Avenue north of Sheridan Square, where my brother worked as bartender and then manager for awhile, and where I hung out occasionally.
I’m proud to say that Sweeter Than Candy truly was more smutty than Blue Skies, No Candy, in my admittedly biased opinion, and a better read as well. Unfortunately, Sweeter Than Candy never was embraced by the New York literati, went out of print long ago, and is not available now as an ebook. But it was very enjoyable to write, and I guess that’s what mattered most to me.