Saturday, April 01, 2006

Type Cast 11

Today being April 1st, the real first day of Spring for those of us who can’t tell an equinox from a solstice, I figured I’d do some Spring cleaning and come clean about my less than thorough reading habits.

As someone who writes about books and publishing for a living, and occasionally writes and publishes books that couldn’t provide a living for a cave bound hermit, you’d think I’d be one of those voracious readers, a bespectacled, hump-backed book spelunker who reads everything from great classics to high trash, from Balzac to Bezmozgis to Batman.

The truth is, I have been avoiding the single most popular form of literature to emerge since the invention of food labels, the sure-fire seller that keeps publishers afloat in every land where women are allowed to read. Of course, I’m talking about Chick Lit.

Call me a snob, call me a misogynist, but books about shoe shopping and pillow fights and crying jags in fancy department store tea rooms just don’t hold my attention. And I’m gay, so I at least understand the designer references. And I’m a drag queen, so I even get the makeup tips.

But all these books about chipper young women (many of whom, suspiciously, work in media or publishing) finding love amidst the dark, beery forests of urban sports bars – in between bouts of daydreaming about French neuro-surgeons in Prada slacks and whining about their ass size - strike me as nothing more than updated Nancy Drew serials with husbands as the end goal, not the capture of swarthy thieves, and weddings in Martinique, not malteds with Dad, as Nancy’s reward for good behaviour.

Well, colour me a hep-less schlep. There’s a whole subgenre of Chick Lit out there I knew nothing about until A.H. Varmung’s debut novel Shy Heels landed like a leather bustier on my innocent, tartan slippered feet. It’s called Slut Lit, and Varmung is already its reigning queen.

Originally from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, Varmung grew up in a family of earnest United Church ministers but, as she puts it, “I learned real fast”. At the already-tenderized age of 17, Varmung fled to Calgary, where she made a small fortune walking on oilmen’s backs – “the slut’s primer”, she calls it.

When the first oil boom went bust in the 1980s, Varmung packed up her studded sandals and moved to Victoria, where, under the pen name Peggy Bruin-Vole, she wrote a very popular gardening column, “Potting Shed Pickup”, for the Vancouver Sun. However, life among the rhizomes and shade shrubs left her unfilled, and Varmung began an online career as a webcam “exotic manicurist” (“There’s a market for everything”, she reminds me). Things were going nail polish smooth until some snoop at the Sun discovered Varmung’s secret second career and ended her lucrative love affair with muck and mulch.

“After I got sh*t-canned from the Sun, I figured it was slink or swim for me, so I started writing porn. At the time, porn stories in magazines paid really well, but now with blogging everybody’s an artiste erotique , there’s a million Anais Nin wannabees, and the market has totally collapsed. But I had a good thing going for about five years. My specialty was transparent-rain-coats-and-no-underpants. Very big with the British.”

Varmung’s progression from columnist to porn near-star to first time novelist is, according to the woman who lived it, “the logical outcome of a life spent exploring myself,” (and that’s putting it mildly).

Shy Heels is a simple enough story, with a plot line borrowed from Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine – well, mostly not the magazine). Young, fair-haired Lindy MacFarlane leaves her humble, southern Ontario town of Aurora Gulch to become assistant photo editor at New York’s glossy Flaunt magazine. She settles into an apartment with a lesbian ceramics artist, a Caribbean-American legal aide named Hortencia, and Martin, a gay activist with a taste for vinyl short shorts. Hijinks ensue!

Lindy, it turns out, is a calculating minx, and she quickly duvet surfs her way into the publisher’s chair, proving that Sharon Stone was wrong when she famously claimed that one can only screw one’s way to the middle. But when Martin contracts AIDS and Hortencia’s mother dies and the lesbian ceramics artist (who, curiously, never seems to get a name in the novel) loses both thumbs in a tragic public transit incident, Lindy rallies to their sides - providing love, patience and succour, and, most important, opening the warm heart she never knew she had.

It embarrasses me to admit that when the whole gang assembles around Martin’s death bed and the lesbian ceramics artist models a lopsided heart pendant for Martin out of a dried up block of mauve Sculpey, I cried harder than I did when Nancy Drew’s dog was kidnapped by a mysterious, swarthy man in The Case of the Locked Medicine Cabinet.

“Yeah, the ending really gets people,” Varmung admits, “especially after all the raunch and roll, I guess you need a little healing, or at least an anti-fungal. But, you know, I knew from the minute I decided that Martin was originally from Wyoming that he had to go. I mean, those boys are innocence itself, and if I killed off Lindy, well, there goes the sequel.”

“The movie people (Varmung sold the rights to Shy Heels to Reese Witherspoon’s production company before it was even published) are thinking one of the guys from Brokeback Mountain should play Martin. I forget which one dies in that show - the blonde? Well, they’ll work it out.”

Lindy fans won’t have to wait long for the sequel. Guy Heels, wherein Lindy marries a hunky billionaire transvestite, is due in time for the Christmas market.