Sex and the city

Not to put a damper on the sheer titillation that author Bill Branyon provides for Asheville insiders, but … upon finishing his latest novel, one very vexing question persists:

What, exactly, are “heroic haunches”?

This term — or the equally enigmatic “heroic hips” — is used at least four times to describe the anatomy of Grace, the primary love interest among the many lady friends of our protagonist, Dan Langerton.

One can’t help but wonder what would alert a person to, say, cowardice in a set of haunches. But that’s a question that Branyon’s book, alas, just does not address.

What Asheville NC, Circa 2000 AD: Confessions of a Serial Monogamist does, instead, is to offer Branyon’s autobiography (of sorts), only thinly disguised as fiction.

And speaking of “thinly disguised,” his “novel” is also a virtual Who’s Who of Asheville politicians, artists, attorneys, business owners, activists, religious leaders, journalists and plain old citizens (the book features a whopping 200-or-so characters).

Sometimes, names are vaguely changed — former City Council member O.T. Tomes becomes “J.O. Bobs”; the late downtown-Asheville philanthropist Julian Price arrives as “Jordan Cost”; long-time local gallery Blue Spiral 1 becomes Green Helix; Biltmore Estate shifts to Belmont Estate, etc.

Frequently — and with neither apparent rhyme nor reason — real names of people and businesses are used. (Will libel suits ensue?) Meanwhile, in what is, perhaps, the book’s most hysterically inventive identity switch, the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO) becomes the Joined Invisible Hands of the Entrepreneurial Darwinists (JIHED).

How’s that for an evolution?

Learning curves

The gist of Asheville, NC Circa 2000 AD (Transnational Publishing, 2003) is this: Dan Langerton, Alabama-born and of relative privilege, recounts the experiences that have shaped him into the mass of contradictions he is today. Sections of the book are divided into “distant past” (from babyhood through the protagonist’s college days at Vanderbilt University) and “recent past” (mostly, his years in Asheville, and his involvement in our town’s political scene).

We experience Dan’s stay in an Asheville mental hospital; his suicide attempt, and his being diagnosed with manic depression; his once-prodigious taste for booze and, especially, marijuana; his defiant (and richly described) run for Asheville City Council; and, first and foremost, his embrace of what he considers a daring mating ritual: serial monogamy, or “semonog.”

Dan defines the idea as “a faithful monogamy with one person for a number of years, then breaking that sexual bond and becoming monogamous with another person for a number of years, then breaking that sexual bond, and on and on, until death do us stop.”

Serial monogamy, as Asheville, NC Circa 2000 AD contends, is the “dominant mating behavior of over 150 million Americans born after 1946″ — though the book goes on to state that most of these semonogs would be loath to admit to being practitioners of such a heinous evil. (Which means that I may be exactly the wrong target audience for Branyon’s book, because the notion of serial monogamy is far from exotic or shameful to me — perhaps because I was born well after 1946. I never expected, for example, to live happily ever after with my first true love — and a good thing, too, because, if I’m not mistaken, he spent the bulk of his adult life in prison for armed robbery. But I digress.)

Branyon presents semonogs with an often-hilarious set of rules for success, including the notion of wearing “three, five, seven or nine-year rings, differentiated by color,” or “rings that are digital displays with expiration dates that shine on command.

“Say a red ringer is flirting with a blue ringer, but doesn’t want it to go further unless the blue’s expiration date is soon,” he further writes. “If the blue ringer is interested, they could subtly press a button and the expiration date of their semonog contract would quietly flash.”

Snarling feminists and other unpleasant frictions

As entertaining as Asheville, NC Circa 2000 AD can be, though, it’s also frequently — and singularly — irritating.

For instance, for a book so devoted to discussing the mating habits of its main character, there’s an almost Puritanical attitude toward the act of sex itself — especially coming from a man who repeatedly refers to himself as a “radical liberal.”

Too, there’s a great deal of the literary equivalent of adolescent smirking and winking going on here — lots of Harlequin-esque euphemisms for female body parts (“heroic haunches” among them), and a general sense that female sexuality is a bit frightening. As Dan says of the aforementioned Grace: “Her velvet black hair, her warm brown eyes and her playful mouth somehow neutralized the overbearing sexuality of the rest of her.”

An apparent preference for “smooching” — and what Dan calls “frottement” (French for “friction,” and a word he proclaims more elegant than the standard American term for the act: “dry humping”), as opposed to intercourse itself — is a common theme. When sex actually happens (many of Dan’s relationships seem to go no further than “frottement”), it’s either skipped over in the text, or else summarized in a single, flat phrase (the equivalent of “then we had sex”).

And yet the frequent, more-innocent make-out sessions are repeatedly couched in breathless flights of verbal fancy: “We resumed smooching. My cotton-covered pelvis glued to her satin-covered one, and all other skin north and south, stroked with an ardor worthy of bodice-busting romances. Mouths recklessly roamed until near our most private parts which we avoided like good kids.”

In a nighttime bedroom romp with Grace through the empty Belmont House, Dan’s back conveniently goes out just before the moment of consummation. Then the same sort of thing happens again, in a similar situation, late in the novel.

The scene in which Dan and Grace venture into “Brave Books” (obviously a certain popular, downtown-Asheville bookstore), with Grace dressed in a short skirt and “gauzy” blouse, further illustrates the novel’s conflicted view of female sexuality:

“As we neared our Brave Books destination, I shuddered,” Dan confesses. “It was an all woman run store. … The prospect of harmonious communication between a queen of Asheville’s rising feminism [the owner, “Evika”] and Grace’s ancient sexuality seemed unlikely.”

Are feminism and sexuality mutually exclusive? Apparently, given the series of harangues directed at Grace from a variety of jaw-droppingly stereotypical “feminist” bookstore patrons and employees (e.g., “a stocky woman in a black leather jacket”).

“We know exactly what you’ve got under your minimalist fashion,” declares one such female patron. “It might as well not be there. Ever think of bisexual living instead of vamping free advertisement as a corporate clotheshorse?”

The Bill Branyon LP

The author’s inexplicable penchant for rhyming dialogue (think old-fashioned poetry crossed with not-so-great rap) is also highly irritating:

“There was no traditional consummation, just much id jubilation and intimate communication.”

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