A lot of praise has been heaped on Robert Gover’s novels. He’s been
called a sensational writer, a caricaturist, an author with a perfect ear that never
falters, a genius, a true pioneer, a J.D. Salinger with guts, remarkable, exuberant,
first rate, extraordinary—Brilliant! Expressions of admiration have come from
the likes of Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, Henry Miller, and even Bob Dylan. The list
of Gover lovers could go on for many pages.
But the unfortunate truth is that for all quirky, edgy, original writers held in
high esteem, there are and always will be the nay-sayers who condemn them. That’s
the other side of the Gover coin, the not-so-admiring, not-so-laudatory critics.
Truth is, American conservatives hate Robert Gover’s work. Some have called
him a pornographer, a political pornographer, a social pornographer, a cultural
pornographer, an intellectual pornographer.
He was once told: “You are an unschooled writer of four-letter words,
and saying such filth went out with the hippie sixties.”
And: “You wrote a little book that became a big bestseller. It went to
your head and you became a drug addict and alcoholic. End of story.”
Also: “I’m surprised you were taken seriously back in the early
sixties—your novel was less than two hundred pages, the plot was thin and
so were the characters.”
The list of Gover bashing goes on and on: “Your book undermined our
traditional values, so we can hardly expect critics to include it among the best
of Western Culture, can we.”
“That novel was controversial when it first appeared. Since then, the
controversy has been won by the conservatives, and they hate that book.”
“You made a very good living as a writer for ten or fifteen years. Now it’s
time to get another job.”
Why so much vitriol, so much hate, so much contempt and scorn? If an ultra-conservative
coalition is attacking you with such energy, does that mean you’re really
awful and no decent person should read your work, or does it mean you’re probably
doing something right, something this country perhaps desperately needs? I’m
talking about the kind of writing that rocks our world, rocks us out of our lazy
complacency, writing that jolts us awake and makes us question ourselves about our
views of life in this country and elsewhere.
Robert Gover writes about taboo subjects such as miscegenation (mixing of the races),
underage sex, corrupt politics, and politicians and money. Back in his
“bestseller” days, the ’60’s and ’70’s, Gover’s books
were considered to be “in bad taste,” in the way that Henry Miller’s
writing was in bad taste. Before writers like Robert Gover came along, you’d
dare not use curse words in a novel. Even Norman Mailer wasn’t allowed to cuss
when he wrote The Naked and the Dead. Instead of “fuck,” he had
to have his soldiers say “fug,” and approximately half of those
“fugs” were deleted in the first edition of Mailer’s first book.
Writers of Mailer’s early days had to dance around sex as well, and you
certainly couldn't portray race relations in an honest light. How in the world
was a realistic story ever going to be told?
James Jones in From Here to Eternity helped pave the way when he refused
to delete the f-word from his book. Along comes Robert Gover a decade later, who
follows up on Jones’ ground-breaking use of realistic language. And, as the
saying goes, the rest is history. No one bats an eye at the f-word in a novel now.
In fact, it’s so commonplace that it’s on the verge of losing its
mystery, its mystique, its shock value.
The Gover controversy continued when, after fifteen years of rejection, his novel
On the Run with Dick and Jane was finally published. This is another novel
that prompts the puritan rightwing to hold its collective nose. Why? Because it
deals uncompromisingly with Sex Trafficking of underage girls. Its main protagonist
is a twelve-year-old named Jane Doyle who is in a North Carolina orphanage called,
ironically, “Grandmother’s Home.”
Jane lost her virginity early in life. She was only eight when her drunken father
deflowered her. Her mother died young and eventually Jane was taken away from her
boozy, abusive father and handed over to the orphanage, where the sexual abuse not
only continued, it increased. None of Jane’s orifices kept their innocence.
What Jane learns from her experiences is that her body and her ability to manipulate
men sexually are her best means of coping with what is a horrific life. She is sold
to a man who pimps for an organization of sex traffickers. But instead of going
along with those who would prostitute her, she runs away by hiding in the back of
a van owned by sixty-year-old Dick Steel. His wife has died and he is on his way
to California to throw her ashes into the ocean.
Two days into his trip Dick discovers Jane hiding in his van. When he threatens
to turn her in, she says she will accuse him of raping her. In effect, Jane blackmails
Dick into taking her to California with him. On the way there she eventually convinces
him that some very bad men are after her, bad men who want to sell her to an overseas
sex slavery operation.
Her story might seem farfetched, but nothing that happens in the novel is farfetched
at all. In fact Gover’s premise was made highly relevant recently in Vanity
Fair’s May 24, 2011 issue under the headline: “Sex Trafficking
of Americans: The Girls Next Door,” an exposé written by Amy Fine
Collins in which she details several actual cases of underage girls sold into
America’s commercial sex market. Collins calls these girls “modern day
In Gover’s book, Jane Doyle is “twelve going on forty.” The average
age of girls sold into prostitution is thirteen. They are called “Little
Barbies.” Which pretty much describes Jane. Using her well-trained sexuality
she is able to get her way with most of the men she meets, except for Dick whose
strong moral sense won’t allow him to succumb to her charms. Everything
Gover describes in On the Run with Dick and Jane, which, as I said, he
wrote fifteen years before the Vanity Fair article and Collins’
in-depth investigation, has proven to be true. No matter how much we might cringe
and turn away from the subject, the fact is, as Collins concludes, “...that
[sex slavery has] become more lucrative...[it is] much safer to sell malleable
teens than drugs or guns. A pound of heroin or an AK 47 can be retailed once, but
a young girl can be sold 10 to 15 times a day.” Under-age
prostitution “is on its way to becoming one of the worst crimes in the
U.S.,” Collins concludes.
Nearly everything the article tells us is already in Gover’s tale about Jane
Doyle and her friends, which is why I first entitled this presentation “Robert
Gover: A Prescient Voice in American Literature.” Collins makes the point
in her article that “we’re still in the Dark Ages with trafficking
because—unlike incest, rape, and domestic battering, trafficking generates
massive revenues—$32 billion worldwide.”
So who really cares if social conservatives and their ilk call Gover a
pornographer—a political pornographer, a social pornographer, a cultural
pornographer, an intellectual pornographer—it doesn’t matter at all
because what Gover is really doing—not just in On the Run with Dick and
Jane, but in all his novels—is telling the TRUTH, Truth with a capital T,
and no amount of baiting or hating or vitriol will make him stop. I, for one,
wouldn’t have him any other way.
is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel
(The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year
(The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short
Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.
Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City
Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review,
New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated
into six languages.