Rosalyn Drexler plunges into the emerging zeitgeist (of the 1970s) with ferocious intelligence & transgressive wit
Rosalyn Drexler, One or Another, Dell Books, 1971.
The LA Times quote on the cover of "One or Another" says, "An infinite variety of sexual roles, a taboo area that most men would rather sweep under the carpet, the darkest dreams of wish-fulfillment and eroticism -- from voyeurism to group sex." And while this is accurate, it also sounds like a blurb for a typical early 1970s novel, deliberately "shocking" & gleefully hedonistic -- and while that's also accurate to an extent, it's so much more than that. A couple of years before Erica Jong's justly lauded "Fear of Flying", Rosalyn Drexler was exploring some of the same territory -- women & desire, fantasy, sexuality, politics, race, culture -- and in an even more fascinating, acerbic, stunning way.
Miss Drexler made a startling starlet debut with I Am the Beautiful Stranger (1965) and this is a second showy, hip, ingenue performance even though her first person heroine Melissa is 39. In short notations which reveal her indolent if hypermotor instability as she thinks (fantasizes) about M., her redbearded husband-teacher (in the New York City Public School system during its troubles) and J., one of his students. She's understandably bored with the cloddish, proprietary M. who writes letters persecuting black colleagues signed by a member of the National Rifle Association. She's equally un-understandably overcome by J. who is not only naive and reluctant, latently homosexual and schizoid, but has ""melancholy, glossy lips"" and ""genitals like the sego lily."" Miss Drexler brings all kinds of modish, liberated instant perceptions to this but one is impressed with very little except her heroine's sexual appetence. . . . One or Another. . . neither nor. - Kirkus Reviews
She had begun that exploration in her earlier "I am the Beautiful Stranger' -- also vital reading, I might add -- but in these pages, Drexler plunges into the emerging zeitgeist with ferocious intelligence & transgressive wit. Her narrator Melissa speaks in the present tense, writing in short bursts of prose that are both poetic & pungent, weaving her thoughts & feelings through the public & deeply personal events of the day, offering a dazzling, multi-faceted portrait of both mind & body determined to be whole & free -- to be a woman utterly unashamed -- and even more urgently, undefined by anyone but herself.
In a short 149 pages, Drexler encompasses a world changing by the second, bursting with new ideas & hungers & ambitions so long denied to half the human population ... and yet Melissa is always, before anything else, an individual, a distinct & singular person with her specific & particular life. Her story is a vibrant melding of flesh & philosophy, told in a complex but clear voice that demands to be heard. I haven't read a novel with this much immediacy, passion, and brains in a long time -- a striking accomplishment, most highly recommended! - William Timothy Lukeman @ amazon.com
Rosalyn Drexler, To Smithereens, New American Library, 1972.
When TO SMITHEREENS was originally published in 1972, the New York Review of Books said of it, "There's hope for literature yet." The novel, based on Drexler's life, chronicles the adventures of a lady wrestler named Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire. Rosalyn Drexler was born in 1926 and her creative career has been long and varied, as she has written novels, essays, and plays as well as painted explosive images that rival the best work of the Pop-art generation.
Today it’s common for authors to play with reality, memory, and fiction in their writing, but it wasn’t always that way. In the genre of memoir, which evolved from autobiography, writers found refuge from nonfiction’s more inflexible building blocks—facts, for example. But the publishing industry hasn’t always allowed such shenanigans. In the past, memoirists who strayed too far into imagination—through composite characters, recreated events, or multiple points of view—found their books sidelined as fiction. Usually, writers had good reasons for taking that hit and did so to make an artistic point. Sometimes the point was well-founded; other times, ill-conceived. A good example of the latter is Rosalyn Drexler’s 1972 novel To Smithereens, which loosely chronicles the author’s adventures as a lady wrestler: Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire.
Republished this fall by Brooklyn Rail Books and Black Square Editions, Drexler’s novel opens in a darkened movie theatre as Rosa crushes the fingers of a man who is groping her thigh. The man, Paul, reveals himself as an art critic and lady wrestling enthusiast; before long, he and Rosa start a relationship. The opening scenes act out themes that become the novel’s central concerns: sex and sexism, eroticism and domination, play, curiosity, and violence. Perhaps most strikingly, these scenes begin a pattern of intimate moments acted out in communal spaces. This private-public dichotomy speaks to wrestling as a performance, or to any kind of art and its corresponding business. Plus, the trope gives the story some of its stranger moments, as when Paul allows several sets of disembodied hands to pleasure him during a public art exhibition:
My bare buttocks were swarmed upon with kisses and pinches. One hand…a human hand, free to grope me from the opening at the bottom of the box, snaked around and took my sex in its bare fist! I was terrified…what if there were hidden cameras?…what if the hand belonged to the male gender?…what if I enjoyed it?…I rigidly opposed the flood of pleasurable sensations which threatened to overcome me. I grabbed the loving hand to stop it…but found that I was helping it instead.
As disturbing as some of the book’s incidents appear, Drexler keeps the writing light-hearted throughout. Before long, Rosa and Paul decide to break into the wrestling industry—Rosa as a performer, Paul as a journalist who writes for Boots Jackson, a sleazy editor and publisher. Vivid personalities circle these two characters, waiting for their chance to join in the action. This ragtag bunch reads like realistic cartoons, and calls to mind other writers working in the 1970s (such as John Gardner or James Tillotson Whitehead); however, their over-the-top behavior doesn’t preclude Drexler from sometimes pivoting to show a more human, emotional side, as when Bobby Fox recounts the death of his daughter, a wrestler who died during a match against the fearsome Tommy J. Jukes.
You would have liked her, Rosa. She wasn’t anything like Verne Vavoom. She wasn’t wild. She didn’t have a mean streak in her. She was a sweetie pie, but that didn’t save her, because she didn’t pay attention to the health and safety rules of wrestling. Her name…Jane Bart Fox. Her age…eighteen. Cause of death…ruptured stomach. That’s what they told me, and I believed it, because she stuffed herself like a pig.
Bobby Fox’s voice, though, is just one of many. In the end, To Smithereens assaults readers with many voices and styles—letters, limericks, film transcripts, faux journalism, and multiple first-person narrators—but in most cases the disparate forms don’t seem to serve the story. No conceit binds the techniques or pins the book together thematically; no logic dictates whether an event is told one way or another. The fragments do offer some insight into Rosa and Paul’s relationship, but the novel as a whole ends up lacking a cohesive structure. Despite these problems, To Smithereens contains plenty of stiffs, squashes, and spots that bring the novel in for a clean finish. Drexler has written hundreds of beautiful sentences and detailed many unique situations; she’s an accomplished writer. However, it remains unclear why To Smithereens has to exist as a novel and not, say, as true nonfiction. What does make-believe offer that’s more strange or terrifying than real life? The answer may be nothing at all, because there’s no formula for telling exactly how much of Drexler’s life experience translates to the page in To Smithereens. It’s possible, if she had tried to sell the book as a fact-based autobiography, no one would have believed in the authenticity of the world she brings to life. - Ben Pfeiffer
Visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years can be fraught with trepidation. Is she still cogent? Has she grown lethargic and obese? Do you still have anything in common? Do her eyes still twinkle with mischief?
I’m happy to report Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire, is still in fighting trim, and every bit as relevant as she was in 1972 when Rosalyn Drexler introduced her. A new edition of To Smithereens, the novel where we met Rosa and a startling cast of other fighting women who were known as lady wrestlers back then has been published by Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions. The vivid cover is from one of Rosalyn’s paintings.
It may enhance your enjoyment of the novel—and appreciation of its astoundingly accomplished author—to know Rosalyn Drexler actually wrestled professionally as Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire for a short time. It may further amp up the author’s awesome factor for you to know she hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann and though less famous than her male counterparts, is considered among the top Pop Artists. As if that weren’t enough, she is also a well-regarded playwright, and award-winning writer on many fronts. She earned an Emmy for her contributions to a Lily Tomlin television special, Obies for three of her plays, and has written several novelizations, including Stallone’s Rocky (as Julia Sorel), in addition to her many novels. And the wonder woman isn’t done! At 85, she continues to paint, write, and struggle to find time for her relentless creativity.
At the time of first release of To Smithereens, the New York Times put Drexler in the company of Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Sue Kaufman (of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and author of Diary of a Mad Housewife), and Lois Gould, who also wrote about women’s lives.
Rosa was touted by critics as a female Holden Caulfield, but I doubt anyone would make that analogy today. Rosa is more street smart, for starters, less concerned with phonies, more certain of her pronouncements. And despite her tentative longing for someone who loves her, her strength transcends physicality. She’s brazen and outspoken; readers rarely have to guess what she’s feeling. There’s a matter-of-factly-observed severed penis in the book’s second paragraph; we find out early on that Rosa prefers the term cunt (“a hard word of one syllable: mean and sexy [it means business]”) to pussy (“a cutesy-pie way of relating to a part of the body that is neither feline nor filled with stewed fruit . . . and it sustains a childish attitude toward sex”), and that she doesn’t “like the word allowed! Not even the word privileged.” Beyond the fearless raunch, and frequently inextricably tied to it, is an underlying humor, a quizzical shrug at the human condition. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times, once called Drexler the first Marx Sister.
Rosa’s gloriously named art critic boyfriend Paul Partch still alternately endears and reviles. Knowing now what I didn’t know my first reading about the multi-talented Drexler’s painting, and her own relationship with critics, Rosa’s complex involvement with Paul illuminates more than a dominatrix fantasy. You have to assume the author enjoyed writing Rosa’s limerick for Paul:
“There was a young man in the arts
Whose comments exploded like farts
When he turned to the West
People liked him the best
For improving the air in the arts.”The only obstacles that threatened my complete immersion in the story this time around were the references that jerked me back to the seventies. But what’s an occasional groovy or fink or a few hangups and vibes when everything else is so au courant? As playwright, novelist, and visual artist, Drexler has consistently been twenty years—or more—ahead of her time, creating characters and images on the leading edge of feminism. And you can bet she didn’t ask permission whenever she switched point of view mid-chapter. She just did it. And it worked.
It’s easy to imagine a new generation of young Rosas haunting the gritty movie houses and fast food dives of Manhattan, gargling Cokes, frequenting office buildings where the admonition, “Don’t use the elevator” doesn’t give them pause, carrying rolled up Newsweeks to swat roaches in public toilets, and domesticating bare-bulb flats while they wait for life to swoop them up.
They may be sporting tats and piercings their older sisters didn’t, and be perpetually plugged in to devices that hadn’t yet been invented back then, but in magnitude of conflicting impulses—insecurity and moxie, aggression and timidity, spirituality and agnosticism, death and sex—Rosa and her successors could be twins. A few might even recite “Howl” together.
From Rosa’s opening depression, through her tangles with awakening intellect, to the brink of stardom and back, readers’ expectations will be blown to smithereens, much as a “big explosion . . . God was the first Weatherman . . . from the big bang which blew everything to smithereens new planets formed.” We’re left with a constellation of unforgettable supporting characters in orbit around a resilient Rosa figuratively—and literally—flexing her muscles. - Cheryl Olsen
Rosalyn Drexler, Three Novels, Verbivoracious Press, 2014.
Rosalyn Drexler embarked upon a vibrant career as a pop artist, playwright, screenwriter, pseudonymous author, short-lived Mexican wrestler, and a writer of surreal, satirical, and beguiling comedic fictions, three of which are collected in this volume. Highly regarded by Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Stanley Elkin, and Donald Barthelme, Drexler’s short fragmented novels have faded into relative obscurity alongside numerous postmodern or “avant-pop” writers, deserving of a fresh audience and to be read for their brilliant comedic energy and sharp satirical eye. I am the Beautiful Stranger is a bold novel of teenage sexuality, familial dysfunction, and knotty self-awakening; One or Another the darkly comic tale of collapsing marriage, infidelity, and racial unrest; and The Cosmopolitan Girl explores the unlikely romance between a style-obsessed woman and her talking dog. These three novels represent Drexler’s exuberant and thoughtful prose style at its finest.
Rosalyn cites the following authors and individual works as among her formative influences: Nathanael West—Miss Lonelyhearts, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, A Cool Millions, The Day of the Locust; Franz Kafka—Complete Stories; Machado De Assis—Dom Casmurro; Terry Southern—The Magic Christian; Eugéne Ionesco; Honore de Balzac—Droll Tales; Maxim Gorky—My Childhood; S.J. Perelman; William Saroyan; Colette—Cheri and The Last of Cheri; Jack London—Call of the Wild, White Fang; Lewis Carroll; Nikolai Gogol—Collected Stories; Italo Svevo—As a Man Grows Older; Charles Dickens; Mark Twain; D.H. Lawrence; Mary Chesnut—A Diary From Dixie; Stanley Elkin; Edmund Wilson—The Twenties; Mikhail Sholokhov—Quiet Flows the Don; Camilo Jose Cela—Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son.
Rosalyn Drexler’s Noir Paintings
Rosalyn Drexler with John Yau
Rosalyn Drexler: Pop Artist, novelist, playwright and wrestler
Unwrapping a beautiful stranger : interview with and readings of Rosalyn Drexler
I am the Beautiful Stranger–Paintings of the ‘60s (review by John Yau)
Rosalyn Drexler's books include I Am a Beautiful Stranger, Bad Guy, Art Does (Not!) Exist, VULGAR LIVES, TO SMITHEREENS, and the forthcoming Tree Man: A Tough Situation. Drexler has won countless awards including a Primetime Emmy award for Best Writing in Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music in 1974 for her work on Lily (1973), several Obies, and a Guggenheim fellowship. Her paintings are in major American museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; she has showed at PaceWildenstein, and her work has been hailed across the world for its character and wit. Long before a younger generation began working in different mediums, Drexler painted and wrote with trenchant intelligence and insight.