Over the last few months, the literary world has just spread out an erudite welcome mat for an overnight success — one that took only 50 years to arrive. “Scary Old Sex” (Bloomsbury), Arlene Heyman’s first published book, a collection of seven short stories, has been riding a wave of ecstatic reviews. It made Kirkus' list of Top 100 books of the year and was an entry in The New York Times holiday gift guide, remarkable feats, since, aside from a prize-winning story and a contest-winning novella years ago, Dr. Heyman, a 74-year-old Manhattan psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, had published practically nothing for years. But she kept writing, and these stories are notable — for their pungent, precise and often funny literary style, and also for their boldness in looking at sex, death, bodily functions and “forbidden” fantasies that betray their author’s day job.
During sickness and old age, her characters keep having sex, even when, as one 65-year-old wife puts it, between the Vagifem and the Viagra, the K-Y and the scheduling, “making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed …” And sometimes they need taboo fantasies to climax — like imagining sex with one’s son. One character quotes the famous line, “Nothing human is alien to me,” and that’s true for this author, too.
The most talked-about story in the book may be the one based on the author’s two-year affair when she was a 19-year-old undergraduate and he was her 47-year-old professor, the author Bernard Malamud. This story was written years after the affair had ended but while the friendship between the two was still strong, as it was until his death years later.
Meanwhile, Heyman married, was widowed, and is now in a second marriage. She has clearly drawn inspiration from her own life, perhaps in such stories as the exquisite “Dancing,” in which the wife of a husband dying from leukemia climbs onto his hospital bed, where they make love and weep. (Heyman’s own husband died of leukemia.) But always, she says, her stories are fiction.
Who are her characters? I know them, and in some ways I am, and was, them. I dare any non-observant Jewish upper-middle-class urbanite to read this book and not find yourself somewhere. But Heyman stresses that not one of the characters was modeled on a patient.: “Patients come to me for help, not to become characters in stories.”
Heyman and her characters are so New York that it’s hard to believe she didn’t spring full-blown in her expansive Upper West Side apartment in its imposing turn-of-the-last-century building. However, she was born and grew up in Newark.
She is an easy person to interview — charming, unaffected and a wicked joke-teller. Saul Bellow said that you know everything about a person if you know his or her favorite joke. The three Heyman told me revealed that she’s feminist, anti-Nazi and has a bawdy sense of humor — all of which comes across in her book.
She majored in English at Bennington, earned an MFA, kept writing and taught English. So when and why did she turn toward medicine? “I was getting anxious about how I would earn a living,” she said. “And I thought that if, as a Jew, I would ever get thrown out of this country, I could always take my knowledge of the human body elsewhere, since bodies are the same all over the world.”
Capturing a personality with just a few words is something the author shines at, like her description of a second husband too timid “to ask for all dark meat from Chirping Chicken.” How does her own husband feel about these second husbands coming up short? “Sometimes he feels exposed, but I tell him, it’s fiction. And first husbands are dead. You can idealize them because you don’t see them in glaring sunlight. Second husbands are alive: As wonderful as they may be, they’re imperfect, as we all are.”
But why the title? Not all these stories involve old people, not all focus on sex, and what’s scary? Heyman explains: “Everyone wants to be connected with another. ‘Scary’ has to do with this vulnerability, which may be for some people at its most alarming with sex; and ‘old’ also means something fundamental in life.” Facing intimacy or fearing it, her characters get angry, back away, express their love through the myriad trials life brings them. And sex often helps.
Heyman’s language paints vibrant word pictures, as when she writes about an assisted living facility, with “mostly elderly women, but here and there a few men are sprinkled around like pepper on a salad.” Or an old wife appreciating her husband’s “aged flesh … nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms — beautiful, if you have an eye.” A doctor’s single thought about his mother tell all: “She would never have stood for his father’s having any pleasure.”
The last story has a singularity. Husband and wife are unnamed. The wife kvetches, the husband whines, their unending complaints come from deep places during this last night of their cruise, which travels in and out of German villages that once had thriving Jewish populations but whose guides now give “Jew-clean” talks.
The author has compassion for all her characters. And seemingly for us, her readers. I close the book thinking that she must be an excellent analyst.
Sally Wendkos Olds has won multiple national awards for her writing on intimate relationships, lifecycle stages and personal growth. She has authored or co-authored 11 books.