Monday, July 16, 2012

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau

I have to admit that despite the horrors of the Viet Nam war and the political chaos in the U.S. in the early seventies, I feel that I came of age politically, socially, and morally in that decade. It seemed a time when there was a great surge towards freedom—a time when students and workers had more power than anytime since, and when young and old came together in like-minded struggles attempting to limit the power of the rich and to call attention to and put the brakes on economic imperialism around the world. It was a heady and vigorous time, and in most ways, I feel lucky to have lived through it and learned from it.

For that very reason I have been surprised by the reactions of some of the kids who were raised in that era—people who came to see themselves as victims of the relaxed sexual and social norms of the time rather than as beneficiaries. In her 2008 debut novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Jessica Anya Blau recalls what it was like for her and her slightly older sister to grow up in a so-called liberated household.

Jamie and her sister, Renee, fervently wish that they had ‘normal’ parents—parents who gave them curfews, scrutinized their friends, even checked on the truth of just where they really would be on their overnight slumber parties. Jamie’s friends think her parents are super-cool; they have the access to the best weed in town, trust their daughters implicitly, and seem more interested than concerned about the sex lives of their fourteen and fifteen year old daughters. If there is anything that embarrasses Jamie more than the nudity of her parents at swim parties around the family pool, it is her mother’s wanting to share in Jamie’s coming of age and her dawning sexuality.

The night before her first real date with a boy (he is seventeen, she fourteen), she asks her parents what time they expect her home.
“When did you say this date was?” Betty {her mother} asked.
“Tomorrow night,” Jamie said.
“Dan and I won’t even be home,” Betty said. “We’re going grunion hunting with Leon and Lois.”
“Well, what time will you be home?
“I dunno, three, four in the morning.”
“Mom! Please be home by midnight. I don’t want to come home to an empty house.”
“So stay out past three.”
While most of this little novel is light-hearted and meant to be humorous, there is quite obviously an undercurrent of real fear in Jamie, and genuine disdain for the ways in which her parents conduct their lives. I’m reminded of another more serious (and on the whole much better) memoir by Joelle Fraser entitled The Territory of Men. In both of these books, it is quite obvious that the main characters see themselves as casualties rather than beneficiaries of the 70s, mostly because they were too early introduced both to sex and to drugs.

Jamie recalls a typical party thrown by her parents:
There were twelve adults and eight kids at the party. The children clumped together in an approximation of their parents’ friendship; theirs was an intimacy borne of the shared experience of witnessing the grown-ups revelries.
All of the adults were naked. All of the kids were in swimsuits, even the one-year-old girl, Lacey, who wore a bandana-print suit.
Jaime’s sister, Renee, is even more disgusted and disdainful of her parents and these parties than Jamie, and escapes the entire family whenever possible via Christian summer camps or excursions with friends in what she sees as normal families. Jaime is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the lives her parents lead, but her attitude towards the adult nakedness is univocal.
Here’s the thing adults should know when they choose to dance naked, Jamie thought: Everything bounces, and the bouncing isn’t necessarily on beat with the music. So watching a naked adult dance is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses; a shadow image beside the real one.
She continues with a more graphic description of just what bounces and how it looks that I won’t report here; suffice it to say that even her interest in those bouncing body parts is born of disgust.

In addition to Jamie’s recollections of and critique of her parents’ lives, this is also a story about her first love. Again I am reminded of another book about the seventies, Alix Kate Shulman’s excellent memoir, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. Alix recalls how the lovely and exciting times of kissing and hugging with boys comes to an abrupt end once she allows them to take her into the back seat, and all too soon achieve that fevered penetration. All the warmth and excitement are gone, and what is even worse, once the boys have scored, there is no going back to the warm cuddly times; boys only go forward, never back. Alix tells us that she gives up sex at eighteen, sure that there is nothing in it for her. Jamie, too, discovers that the exciting build up from kissing, to touching, to heavy petting leads not to the nirvana that she had hoped for (and that her mother insists is the nature of sex), but to at worst fear and pain, and at best boredom and waiting for him to finish. And like Kate’s experiences, there is no going back to the more innocent and much more rewarding times of cuddling and exchanging of confidences. Jamie’s boyfriend, Flip, disappears from her life as quickly as he magically appeared, and while the sex is no loss, the companionship is.

While this is not a great book, it is quite well written and sadly funny. At least for this reader, it is a reminder that the seventies might have had a much different look and feel to kids brought up in those times than to me and my peers.

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