Monday, June 8, 2015

The Lovelorners

The Lovelorners, by William Hegner
August, 1976  Pocket Books

William Hegner scores again with another short novel that packs in a healthy dose of sleaze and sin. Not as outrageous as The Ski Lodgers or as good as The Worshipped And The Damned, The Lovelorners is still a very entertaining and ribald tale told in a very unusual form, mostly due to Hegner’s thorough skewering of “Dear Abby.”

At 188 pages of big print, The Lovelorners is about the length of the average volume of The Penetrator. It even has more white space, as cagey Hegner breaks up his text into a sort of epistolary format; not exactly like Dracula or anything, but more so via “chapters” that alternate between the editorials of its two sibling protagonists, who begin a circulation war with one another. Penelope Sutter, or “Dear Penny” as she’s known to her legions of fans, has recently come under fire courtesy none other than her busty, promiscuous sister, Lydia, whose “Letters to Lydia” column speaks to the “now generation.”

Like most other Hegner novels, The Lovelorners doesn’t take place during the year it was published; we’re informed at the outset that the year is 1968, though there’s nothing in the novel that would’ve been out of place in 1976. That is to say, there’s no attempt on Hegner’s part to capture the psychedelic or free love era, and in fact a later setting would make more sense, given the increasingly raunchy tone of Penny and Lydia’s editorials. Actually, I never really did get a full understanding why Hegner even set the novel in 1968. (For that matter, the TV show Kung Fu is mentioned at one point, and that didn’t even premiere until 1972.)

The Lovelorners is a classic case of a roman a clef; I was never a reader of “Dear Abby” but was aware of it. It was only after reading this novel and checking Wikipedia that I learned that the real-world Abby, Pauline Friedman, experienced a similar struggle with her own sister, Eppie Lederer, who challenged “Dear Abby” with the “Ask Ann Landers” column. Hegner has taken this real-life sibling rivalry as played out in the “lovelorner” columns and put his own unique spin on it – which it to say he has capably trashed it up.

One of the last novels Hegner published, The Lovelorners is almost as pessimistic about the trash fiction genre as his later The Ski Loders. It isn’t as over-the-top in the sleaze department, though be sure there’s a lot of that, mostly because Lydia specializes in answering sex-related questions, and soon Penny is pushed by her publisher to do likewise. As mentioned the novel is written in a sort of editorial format where the two female protagonists alternate chapters, telling us about the most recent events in their lives for a few pages before getting to the nitty-gritty of answering letters.

Hegner shines here, as some of the puns he comes up with would do the real Dear Abby proud. Just as in that real-life column these readers send in personal questions with goofy signatures, like for example the lady who says she doesn’t understand what “sixty-nine” refers to and signs herself as “Math Flunker.” In fact I was very impressed with Hegner’s ability to come up with so many letters from so many fictional readers; after a while I felt like I was reading a real column, such was the variety of questions posed and the pinache with which Penny and Lydia answered them.

Parallel to the questions and answers, Hegner skillfully builds a plot, even if it is a little threadbare. But then, even this little bit is impressive, given that each character only editorializes for a few pages before getting to the questions. In other words, it’s not like Hegner has given himself lots of pages to slowly build up and play out a meaty plot. Rather, it’s pretty simple: Lydia’s column has become so popular that it threatens to usurp Penny as the queen of the lovelorners – or, as Penny arrogantly insists on referring to herself, a counselor in human affairs.

“Arrogance” aptly sums up Penny Sutter, who goes on and on about her vast intelligence. Gradually though the reader can see the dent in her armor: she is not nearly as busty or sexy as her kid sister, Lydia, and has always been jealous of her. As the novel goes on Penny becomes more honest in her editorials, even wishing at one point that she could’ve given up a small portion of her intellect in exchange for boobs like her sister’s. Not that this stops Penny from spending most of the novel writing condescendingly about her readers, her editor, her assistants, and even her husband, Harry, who himself is trying to get in on the sex game by writing a novel.

Lydia on the other hand is “earthy,” as she refers to herself (but to Penny she’s “gauche”). Going on about how book smarts were never her thing, but how writing comes easily and naturally to her, Lydia is more focused on her own life than worrying about Penny – other, that is, than the circulation war she challenges her to in the opening pages. But Lydia is just as arrogant and self-obsessed as her sister, constantly complaining about how hard it is to answer pathetic questions from pathetic readers. As mentioned the questions she receives are a little more sex-focused than Penny’s, but this changes as the narrative continues.

Penny we learn has been encouraged by her editor, the Hearst-like William Cymbal of the Cymbal Syndicate, to get more “raunchy” in her letters. So then as the novel goes on, Penny’s columns start to get a little more like Lydia’s, only with more reserve – and a lot more complaint, as Penny constantly complains that she’s being demeaned by all of this. In the meantime she has real-life issues, like her husband’s novel, which he titles The Great American Whorehouse, hoping to cash in on Penny’s name with a publisher. She also soon finds out that her old office has been converted into a workroom boudoir, in which Cymbal and Penny’s assistant entertain each other.

Penny meanwhile gets increasingly raunchy in her editorials, such as a bizarre part where she’s giving herself a breast exam (both sisters write their editorials in present tense) and then begins fondling herself, all of it building into a full-on masturbation sequence. (Are we supposed to believe this would’ve been printed in a newspaper??) Speaking of masturbation, Lydia’s editorials steal the show, especially given a part early on where her live-in boyfriend, Sylvan, masturbates in her face while she’s writing! (A scene which contains the greatest single line of all time: “My suave, sophisticated, compassionate lover has just jacked off in my face!”)

Hegner confuses, possibly intentionally, with Sylvan also attempting to write a sex novel, though Lydia doesn’t know what it’s about. Like Penny though she constantly bemoans her lover’s “vain” attempts at trying to write and harbors a lot of resentment and jealousy over it, especially when it turns out that he’s pretty good. I guess this is just another of Hegner’s ways of showing how similar the two sisters are, despite their vowed hatred for one another; they’re both with guys who want to be writers, themselves. Not to mention the occasional vague reference to lesbian “explorations” the sisters performed upon each another in childhood…

It all culminates at the Presstige Awards, in which both Penny and Lydia are up for the Silver Scoop. Hegner per the norm doesn’t really play this up; in fact when we finally get to the awards he cuts away to the aftermath between chapters, where we learn that the sisters were co-winners, and Penny stormed out of the ceremony in a huff. We further learn that Lydia has officially become the new Penny, in a way, with the last chapter being a “Dear Penny” column in which Penny states she’s taking a “temporary” break; Lydia, meanwhile, has been awarded the larger circulation and is more popular and famous than ever.

As Dean Koontz opined in Writing Popular Fiction, the “Big Sexy” (aka trash fiction) genre is dangerous because a writer may soon reach burnout. It would appear that Hegner had reached it by the time of this novel, as both Penny and Lydia constantly gripe about dealing with and writing about nothing but sex all of the time. There is no joy in what they do, and it’s clear they’re only doing it to further inflate their own egos and to keep themselves in the limelight. There is an increasing frustration and cynicism to the text, similar but not as to the fore as in The Ski Lodgers.

But Hegner’s writing is still strong as ever, particularly when it comes to the puns, the dialog, and the caustic, arrogant tone of his female protagonists. Again though he rarely writes any character or situation descriptions, leaving it all to dialog. And there’s no sex, even though there’s a lot of talk about it; the closest we get is late in the novel where Lydia gets drunk and has a one-night stand, but she doesn’t even remember it. Anyway, while I wasn’t blown away by The Lovelorners, I did get a fair bit of enjoyment out of it – the fact that it was so short and breezily written also helped.

BONUS MINI-REVIEW: Last year I read another Hegner novel, Stars Cast No Shadows (Pocket Books, 1974), but never got around to reviewing it – mostly because, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it! The “novel” was more like a bunch of somewhat-related short stories, about a prep school for the children of movie stars. It was okay, but nothing great, and while sleazy at times it wasn’t as outrageous as the other Hegner novels I’ve reviewed here. Mostly it was just forgettable.

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