Your Saturday Book Review: Sentimental Education OR The 100 Dollar Misunderstanding

(Once again I find myself reading or not reading three different novels, and am forced to review something I read once upon a long time ago.)

The line between satire and bad taste may be non-existent, and once the work is no longer topical, in most cases, all that’s left is bad taste. This may be the problem with Robert Gover’s once daring novel, The One-Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, which is part of a trilogy for those readers who won’t read anything unless it’s a series. It should be noted, however, that this novel can stand alone, if it stands at all.

Let me confess, I read it years ago, when it was in a list of recommended books for a college creative writing class. The reason it was on the list had to do with voice – not in the sense of the distinctive capital V writer’s voice, but rather the creation of characters with distinctive voices, telling stories from their points of view, and the concept that one could tell the same story from the entirely different points of view of two (or more characters).

The few of you who’ve actually read, Loisaida, may now be experiencing an “ah-hah” moment, as, clearly, this book had a definitive influence (for better or worse) on yours truly.

The setting is the early 1960’s, back when it was really still the 1950’s, before the JFK assassination, and The Beatles, and everything changed. The plot, or misunderstanding involves one James Cartwright Holland, otherwise known as Jimmy, a nineteen year-old, white southern college boy from an “upstanding” family and Kitten a fourteen year-old African American hooker (or as Jimmy calls her, “a colored lady of ill repute.”)

Their meeting and subsequent adventure is told in chapters with alternating points of view. Jimmy, who thinks he already knows about sex, is naive, immature and not very bright. Kitten, forced into premature adulthood, is pragmatic and shrewd, but at heart still a child, and just as ignorant of Jimmy’s world as he is of hers.

The book was originally published in France, then taken on in the US by the notorious Grove Press, and received a rave review in The New York Times Book Review.

While it was meant as a satire examining everything from our hypocritical attitudes toward sex, to our hypocritical attitudes toward race, the question is how does it read now, in a country where not only isn’t miscegenation a crime, it’s not even a thing – the word is by its nature racist, and our President refers to himself wryly as a “mutt”?

Painfully, might be one answer.

The black characters all seem to be involved in vice, and while the white characters are not virtuous, they do hold down jobs that don’t involve prostitution, gambling or drugs. The white characters may not be particularly bright, but the black ones are presented as primitives – sensual beings lacking the “hang ups” of the more civilized white “race.”

We have Kitten herself. She is independent, someone in control of herself and her destiny, who doesn’t seem to mind exchanging sex for money. In 2013, we know that fourteen year old prostitutes are coerced or forced and don’t actually get to keep their earnings, and that perhaps of millions of girls (and some boys) are forced into this life today.

As for Jimmy, he’s a kind-hearted idiot. There’s no danger to his racism. This was written at a time when the national guard was needed to protect children “integrating” schools, when a fourteen year old black child had been lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, yet Jimmy isn’t hateful, just dumb.

The problem is not that satire deals in stereotypes, it’s that the stereotypes this novel deals with are themselves so outdated they can only be read with a wince.

So does this one just get swept up into the dustbin of history? Maybe. Or you could read it as a curiosity – try to figure out what Gore Vidal was getting at when he wrote that he hoped it would be read by every adolescent in the country.

Technically, the writing lesson stands. What plot there is, is told through two equally limited and unreliable narrators, each with a distinctive personality, life experience, and manner of speech. The reader is left to decipher what “really” happened.

If you are curious, the book is available for pennies used, as well as in a “corrected” version on Kindle.