BOOK REVIEW / The great god Penis

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The Independent Culture
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN's first novel since his hugely successful 'Tales from the City' series is dedicated to Tamara de Treaux, the tiny actress who played ET and yet remained virtually unknown until her death in 1990, when everyone said 'goodness, she was ET'. Well, she wasn't; she was Tamara de Treaux, actress. Maupin's heroine, Cady Roth, the world's second shortest woman, has likewise played a forlorn and winsome goblin, Mr Woods, in a world-famous film which did nothing for her career: encased in wire and sculpted latex, she was invisible, anonymous.

At the age of 31, after shooting a TV commercial as a dancing pot of anti- cellulite cream, Cady yearns for stardom in a Rumpelstiltskin film, entertains at children's parties and mourns her mother, best friend and manager. A series of more than usually unpleasant incidents in a life of constant threat and humiliation pushes her to a decision: she will become a guerrilla in the unholy war of human prejudice.

Doom ensues. There is a subplot dealing with a friend's unhappy homosexual love-life and the necessity of coming out. Over and again the theme of the outsider recurs: 'To be the living heart of something but not the thing itself.' Cady herself has an affair which ends with her bleak recognition that the world allows her to have male friends (tolerant Mr Nice Guys) but not sexual partners (raging perverts). 'It's of crucial importance in this culture where dicks get put.' No resolution is offered.

The trouble with this book is that by the alchemy of Maupin's pen the burden of sorrow becomes great fun. The dialogue is sharp, witty, inventive. I learnt lots of new expressions: 'Wagging Wieni at the local meat rack' is one which may not be useful; but then there is 'toast', signifying the newly demode. Brand names proliferate; clothes, furnishings and the urban landscape are all described in indulgent detail. This indulgence extends (if you'll excuse the verb) to the great god Penis, who towers like a manatee over the steaming city, worshipped alike by insider and outsider, and invoked by many interesting names. Cady (otherwise a convincing female voice) is as obsessed with his image as any of her male friends. I just don't know any women who say things like: 'His groin hovered over me like a dirigible, iridescent as a butterfly's wing in the morning light.' Maybe I know the wrong sort of women.

None the less, the protagonists in this phallocentric world are funny, brave and vulnerable; above all they are crucially and terminally charming. The charm mingles uneasily with the satire, creating a miasma like the saffron fog of LA. The cries of real pain are diffused and the moments of anger forgotten. The purple and lurex cover and marbled end-pages betray the book's true nature. It is a hugely enjoyable, glamorous read about other people's tragedies.