The back cover of Gary Sherbell’s novel Talking To Richard offers the following:
A conservative NYC judge wakes up to discover that he’s been cursed by a voodoo priestess: his penis has metamorphosed into the talking head of a famous radical lawyer who dies during the night (a personage who will remind many of the late William Kunstler.) The two members of this involuntary odd coupling are poles apart on almost every issue, but they have one thing in common: as typical males they are determined to make maximum heterosexual use of the member they share . . .
This summation captures the novel’s promise and it’s underlying weakness. With its unique perspective and its connection to issues like sex, politics, race, and family it has the potential to offer insights into modern life. But with a focus almost entirely on the shallow process of thinking with one’s sex drive, the book offers very little in the way of ideas. What you are left with is a satirical romp about the male obsession with sex, with a syrupy happy ending tacked on the end.
Sherbell’s hook, a live talking human being as your sexual member, does provide for an interesting perspective at times. What if your member could both help and hinder your sex drive? Men are often accused of thinking with this member, in Talking it’s a conversation not just an urge. A couple of things make this difficult, however, and detract from the potential insights. One is the explicit, almost scatological, descriptions this involves. Sherbell describes, often in detail, bodily functions like defecation, masturbation, and of course the sex act itself. I will admit that I lean toward the prudish side and I found these scenes neither erotic nor particularly thought provoking. The second is the implausibility of much of the interaction. The main character, Steve Goren, spends most of his time with his pants off in order to accommodate his uninvited guest. He reads the paper to Richard, he uses a mirror to allow him to watch television, etc. Goren, after a very brief freak out, seems to almost casually adopt this deference to his new member. The book doesn’t really communicate the surreal nature of this action. Instead the prose is sort of mundane and nonchalant.
The other major fault is the lack of any depth to the issues discussed – from politics to sex to family. Steve and Richard seem incapable of thinking about women as anything other than sex objects. In fact the entire book is obsessed with sex. The middle of the book is taken up with Steve’s attempts to have sex with various women and, when the relationship between Steve and Richard breaks down, with Steve’s inability to have sex with women. In these relationships everything is focused on having sex. Even the politics that get interjected are viewed as a potential roadblock to sex not as real issues with meaning. The politics discussed are in fact better described as current events posing as politics. Despite his description as conservative, Steve’s ideas are never flushed out in any substantive way. Oh sure, the rough and tumble life of New York City has knocked the idealistic edges off his youthful liberalism but beyond a get tough on crime attitude and unwillingness to abuse the legal system for ideological reasons very little is offered to explain his “conservatism.”
Even when in the end Steve does appear willing to make sacrifices for love there is no explanation for what love means or why it has blossomed. The fact that he falls in love with the most beautiful women he has ever met and she also happens to be intelligent and charming adds to the superficial nature of the book. It is one thing to offer a satirical look at men’s obsession with sex and quite another to cap this superficial romp off with a happy ending where the sex obsessed man gets to live with a wealthy, intelligent, and drop dead gorgeous women because he is funny and can dance.
If all of this sounds unduly negative, it is only because the book was obviously attempting something more than I got out of it. (And in its defense, perhaps I wasn’t its target audience. After all I am a 30 something, prudish, traditionalist conservative, Midwesterner, who has been married to his high school sweetheart for ten years. The main character in Talking To Richard is a rather obsessive, divorced, forty-five year old Jewish agnostic judge living in New York City.) Sherbell tried to take an interesting concept and use it as a lens on modern life; to use a ridiculously fantastic story to illuminate our mundane and daily lives. But although the story is interesting and even funny at points (and certainly satirical and fantastic) it doesn’t really pack a punch. All of the controversial issues touched on in the book (sex, race, politics, etc.) look like props placed there for a reason. But, although Sherbell touches on them throughout, in the end they don’t substantively add to the book’s impact.
Sherbell offers an easy to read and unique story. And if you find the topic of modern day sexual relationships in an increasingly politicized world interesting, or if you just want something completely different to read, you might enjoy Talking To Richard. But if you are looking for something more, something deeper, I am afraid you will be disappointed.