Book review: Campus Sexpot: A Memoir by David Carkeet
First off, let's get the issue of the title out of the way. Campus Sexpot: A Memoir, by Middlesex writer David Carkeet, is not the memoir of a campus sexpot. Nor is it the memoir of someone who fondly remembers his encounter with a campus sexpot. Readers who are merely in search of salacious prose are better advised to check out the "sexuality" section of Barnes & Noble.
Campus Sexpot, which won this year's award for creative nonfiction from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is one of those meta-works -- a book about a book. Campus Sexpot was the title of a pulp novel published in 1961 by "Art Enterprises" and authored by one Dale Koby, who went on to pen such weighty tomes as Airborne Passions and A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom.
Carkeet, an author of acclaimed novels, short stories and essays, has never met Dale Koby. Oddly, their paths didn't cross when Carkeet was a freshman at the high school where Koby taught English, in a sleepy little town in the foothills of California's Sierras. About a year after Koby's abrupt disappearance, however, everyone in the town of Sonora knew his name, because that's when they found out he'd written a sexy novel with their high school campus as its setting. Real teachers and students appeared in it under transparent noms de plume -- "Verne Oliver" becomes "Vern Tolliver," for example. And protagonist Don Kaufield, a teacher who leaps headlong into an ill-advised affair with his "amply endowed" student Linda Franklin, was obviously a wishful portrait of the author himself.
The ruckus Campus Sexpot caused in Sonora in 1962 was minor, because there wasn't a lot of dirt to stir up -- as Carkeet depicts it, the town was no Peyton Place. If "sexpot" Linda was based on a real person, we never find out about it. Her prodigious bust and sexual avidity seem more likely products of male fantasy.
But the gap between fantasy and reality is precisely what interests Carkeet. He describes how, when he encountered a copy of Campus Sexpot 40 years after his first, fevered adolescent reading, the novel transported him instantly back "into a state of salacious ignorance." For Carkeet, Koby's book crystallizes the conflicts and contradictions that shaped his small-town coming of age: between "good" and "bad" kids, sex myths and sex facts, pious exteriors and grittier realities. To a kid whose birds-and-bees education consisted of an admonishment to remember that sex was an "act of love," the novel's clumsy, far-from-explicit prose seemed intensely erotic, charged with the thrill of the unknown.
To account for the shock waves Campus Sexpot generated at the time, Carkeet has to recreate a lost world, since nowadays, any curious teen with access to basic cable can check out the threesomes on Nip/Tuck. To give us a sense of how it felt to read the novel in 1962, and to satisfy our own prurient curiosity, Carkeet alternates between excerpts from Koby's book -- printed in boldface -- and his own commentary throughout the first several chapters of his memoir. It's literary criticism like you've never read before.
Carkeet assesses Koby's way with words, praising him when he manages to rise above his material, which is seldom. But he also reveals juicy, sometimes ironic connections between pulp and reality. For instance, a teacher in the book who confides, "I've spent my life being interested in girls with hot pants" is based on Carkeet's faculty advisor for the Order of DeMolay, a prestigious Masonic offshoot that engaged young men in "somber rituals."
In a publisher interview, Carkeet says he imposed one "rule" on himself in writing the memoir: "I could talk about an event from my past only if it plausibly sprang from some reference in the original Campus Sexpot." Restrictive as it may seem, this framework gives Carkeet the liberty to explore quite a few aspects of his youth, including DeMolay -- a "religion without a god" -- reading habits in Sonora, sex jokes circa 1962, his fumbling efforts to gain sexual experience, and the "essential art" of coexisting with one's enemies in a small town. The portrait of a way of life that emerges is richly detailed, fond without being sentimental, only occasionally cutesy. The last chapter is a tribute to a man who in Carkeet's mind represents Dale Koby's polar opposite: his father, the town's judge, who conquered his demons and lived a life that was "good" in all senses.
Carkeet describes Koby, by contrast, as "one who seems willfully to have chosen the dark path." Readers may find themselves wishing that Carkeet had done more research into the life of this self-styled outcast and sexual maverick who lends the memoir its moniker and some of its funniest passages -- a sort of Ed Wood of the printed word. We learn that Koby died in 1979, but not much else. Still, anyone who's ever browsed a shelf of vintage pulp novels will appreciate the insights of Carkeet's version of Campus Sexpot, even in an age when salacious prose is easy to come by.