A new novel by Marilyn Jaye Lewis, multimedia artist and author of the award-winning novella Neptuneand Surf, is something to celebrate. Freak Parade is an accomplishment by an erotic novelist at the height of her powers.
This book is so multi-faceted that it is (to quote Shakespeare) “a very opal.” It’s an exploration of the sexual culture of New York City, from upscale apartments facing Central Park to the street life of Lower Manhattan to funky nightclubs occupied by dope dealers and Mafiosi. It’s a meditation on the influence of social class and upbringing on sexual inclinations. It’s a kunstlerroman, a story about the coming-of-age of an artist, a documentary about the contrast between music as food for the soul and music as a commodity for sale, and a portrait of the bitch-goddess called fame. It’s a grittier version of Rent (the 1980s New York City musical based on the nineteenth-century Paris opera La Boheme). It’s a cautionary tale about intoxicating substances. It’s a bisexual BDSM epic and an interracial romance.
The first-person narrator introduces herself:
“That’s right, I used to be famous. I’m exactly who you think I am: Eugenia Sharpe, that one-hit wonder with a bullet. . . Then I traded my fame for Darryl, my producer. I moved in with him because he asked me to and then I promptly retired from the music business.”
Eugenia, at 35, has been at loose ends for four years, not writing or singing anything since the release of her platinum-selling CD, Alarmed at Carnegie. She spends her days smoking, drinking and getting high in Darryl’s luxurious apartment. Like other “kept women,” she owns nothing except her clothes.
The story begins with a revelation. While Darryl is in Los Angeles, Eugenia and her friend Wanda discover Darryl’s pornographic photo album featuring women Eugenia knows. She realizes she has been played for a fool, and decides to move out — but where will she live, and on what? Wanda offers Eugenia a job in her thrift store. As humiliating as that sounds, Eugenia is grateful for the favor. She fervently hopes that her fall from grace will not become fodder for gossip in the music biz and the tabloid press.
So far, Eugenia seems like the heroine of a tale of feminist awakening: woman recognizes her oppression and strives to break out of it. Eugenia’s situation, however, is less clear-cut than it looks at first. Wanda is more than a friend: she is a former lover who once wanted more from Eugenia than she was willing to give. Eugenia claims she “fell in love” with Darryl, but when the inevitable confrontation occurs, he accuses her of using him — and he is not the only one who sees their relationship this way.
The vast gulf between Eugenia’s former conception of her love affair with Darryl and his brutally-honest description of her as a kind of investment bubble (he claims he was letting her live with him because she owed him five albums) suggests an almost unbelievable lack of communication between them. It’s a stretch, but it’s possible, especially considering that they come from different worlds.
Eugenia, who came to New York from the Kentucky “holler” where she was raised, is still stunningly naive in some ways, yet her bisexuality sometimes looks as opportunistic as negative stereotyping would have it. After leaving Darryl’s apartment, Genie (as friends call her) plunges into a chaotic series of sexual adventures with old friends and new acquaintances, female and male. Too much of the time, she is in an altered state of consciousness and can’t recognize danger or manipulation soon enough.
Eugenia’s taste in booze (Wild Turkey bourbon with diet Coke) and her taste in music provide a jarring background to scenes of urban sexual excess. Here she surrenders against her common sense to Nita, a dominant woman she detests:
“‘Oh god,’ I wailed, the sound of my ecstasy taking over the room, overriding even the sound of Tom Jones singing ‘Sex Bomb.’ Oh god oh god oh god. I was reminded of dogs doing it, but I couldn’t help myself; I pushed myself open wide for her.”
In the morning, Genie remembers her new job when she is awakened by Darryl, who demands an explanation. Genie is forced to realize that she no longer has an unscheduled life in a comfortable nest.
Genie reconnects with old friends, the ones she left behind when her record became a hit. She is taken in by her gay-male friend Chas, who lets her sleep in a roomette in his apartment, a space just large enough for a futon. From this base, Genie bounces between the gay/lesbian/bisexual communities and the world of heterosexual players. Riding the subway with her boss Wanda, Genie is “outed” as a lesbian by an observer, yet Genie is attracted to numerous other people, including a nineteen-year-old male coworker.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this story would be an episodic series of increasingly intense but otherwise random sex scenes which would conclude with an orgy or with Eugenia’s new role as the plaything of a dominant man. In fact, the “freak parade” includes several scenes of group sex, and the lover Genie was destined to meet does turn out to be an Alpha male. Yet Genie’s sexual journey is a plot, a sequence of events showing cause and effect that enables her to mature as she interacts with other characters.
Music is such an important motif in this novel that it needs a soundtrack. Genie discovers salsa and her own ability to dance as one man enables her to make sense of the local Puerto Rican culture that has been around her for some time. She sees the blatant racism that her new friends have had to endure all their lives, and is amazed by her former blindness. As Genie learns to care more for another person than for herself, the reader gets glimpses of her childhood, including the poignant origin of her first name, and why certain sexual kinks appeal to her. Eddie, the suitor who appears in her life at the right time, is both a traditionalist and the fellow-freak she needs.
At 385 pages, this remarkable self-published novel is hefty without being padded or self-indulgent. The writing shows discipline (in every sense) and shows off the author’s knowledge of the indie music scene. Like a character in Rent, Marilyn Jaye Lewis moved to New York City in 1980 and became a professional singer/songwriter. According to her bio, “She played primarily at folk clubs in and around the East & West Villages with such noted singer/songwriters as Frank Mazzetti, Jack Hardy, Suzanne Vega, Tony Bird, Dave Von Ronk.” The clubs in the novel each have an authentic vibe.
This book, like Eugenia’s hit album, deserves all the airplay it can get.
The hardcover edition is available at Lulu.com
Various electronic formats at Smashwords.com
© 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.