How to go on a nationwide book tour and still not get laid

My sexual odyssey through a semi-literate nation

Illustration By Dale Stephanos

Steve Almond is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal, a collection of short stories. He lives in Boston. This piece originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

I: In which the author considers the downside of going blue
I arrived in Sacramento about halfway through my insane, 37-city book tour—and proceeded into meltdown. The problem was this: My great aunt and uncle, Saul and Pearl Rosenthal, were going to attend my reading.

Normally, I would embrace the chance to hang out with Saul and Pearl; they are two of the coolest human beings on Earth, lefties from the days when being a lefty meant something.

The problem didn’t have to do with them so much as the book I was promoting, a story collection called My Life in Heavy Metal, the content of which is, to say the least, racy. (Filthy might be a more apt word.)

I don’t know about you all, but to me there’s something about reading an oral sex scene in front of older relatives that doesn’t quite rinse. I spent some time considering this as I bombed around the narrow, well-behaved streets of Sac town.

In the end, I decided to read a story that did, of course, have a sex scene or two, but no bodily fluids. This is what we in the biz call artistic discretion.

Saul and Pearl were both in attendance. They sat in the front row, looking so cute I actually wanted to take their picture right there during the reading. And afterward, when I asked Saul if he minded the adult content, he fixed me with a sweet, slightly rakish look and said, “There’s not a whole lot we haven’t heard at this point, kiddo.”

God bless him.

II. In which the author anticipates nookie
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. So allow me to rewind a bit.

On the eve of my first coast-to-coast book tour, a poet pal of mine took me aside for a little literary man-to-man: “The last time I went out on the road it was crazy, dude. Women every night. They just come up to you. They offer themselves.”

When a poet tells you he’s getting that much play, well … you can pretty much draw your own conclusions.

And so, for the first time in many years of traveling, I packed condoms, four varieties, in their bright, hopeful little wrappers, affixed with all those salacious buzzwords—ribbed, lubricated, extra-sensation—which have the effect, even now, back in my lonely writer’s cage, of giving me semi-wood.

III. In which the author … not
But, see, that’s not how the road worked for me.

What I found was that women (and men) come to readings seeking an intellectual, creative connection. And although this isn’t always incompatible with sexual adventurism, it tends to diminish the chances for a quickie in the self-help section.

Illustration By Dale Stephanos

In my case, there also was a logistical issue to consider, one best represented by the following equation: no hotel = no coochie. Yes, to help save money, I stayed with friends, and friends don’t let friends fuck drunk.

Besides which, there’s something indisputably scummy about using your cachet as an artist to hit on a fan. I know it’s a timeworn tradition and all, one of the few perks of writing. But half my stories are about jerks who use sex to primp their frail egos, and I didn’t want to become one of them.

IV. In which the author addresses the, uh, ejaculation issue
One of the things that became apparent in reading my work out loud is that people tend to get hung up on the sex. As soon as someone starts talking blowjobs, the crowd just freezes. This was especially true when I read the title story, which includes the following passage:

“Gradually, her legs sagged to the bed. Her pelvis vaulted into the air. I followed her up, pressed my tongue harder, and suddenly there was a warm liquid coming out of her, a great gout of something sheeting across my cheeks, down my chin, splashing onto the comforter.”

The first time I read this scene, the ladies in the front row looked like they’d been bopped in the back of the head with Ron Jeremy’s man-meat.

The first question I got from the audience was, almost invariably: Have you ever had sex with a woman who ejaculates?

My basic response to this question was: Yeah, I did. But that’s not really the point. Sex is just the strange chemistry and plumbing of our bodies. I’m far more interested in the emotions that live beneath the thrashing.

The issue wouldn’t die. In Minneapolis, a reviewer named Ann Bauer called my rendering of the female anatomy “woefully inaccurate,” setting off a tsunami of protest. One women (God bless her) wrote in to confess that she gushed, was proud to be a gusher, and expressed what I would consider a charitable pity for Ms. Bauer.

No less an authority than the New York Times offered the following in-depth analysis of my narrative strategy:

“The thing about Almond’s stories is that his characters like to have sex. Really like to have sex.”

Yes, Virginia, and often with their clothes off.

V. In which the author talks cock
For the most part, I think, people who came to hear a story managed to suss out that the sex wasn’t really the point, that my characters have a tendency (like many of us) to throw their bodies before their hearts.

But every so often, I’d get a question like this—Why do men always write about their penises?—a question of such dazzling sophistication that I’d be forced to review my basic understanding of the western literary canon.

Homer? Dante? Milton? Cock. Cock. Cock. Faulkner? Cock. Forster. Pure cock. Crime and Punishment? Yeah, come to think of it, cock.

I should note that this question came from a woman, and my guess is that she thought she was being clever in a kind of snarky feminist way.

To me, though, her question was just sort of sad. Not how stupid it was. But the way in which it revealed how embarrassed folks still are about the human body and its desires.

I mean, here we are in a culture that has appropriated sex as its chief marketing tool. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some naked stick figure in lousy mascara. And yet most of us are still freaked when it comes to a serious contemplation of our genitalia. But what the hell else should writers write about? We think about our pussies and cocks all the time. We admire them. We worry about them. We stroke them. We press them against strangers. They take up a hell of a lot of psychic space.

And yet somehow, whenever genitals are attached to actual emotions or thoughts, they become dangerous. They threaten to distract us from the product.

This is why Hollywood, as a big for-instance, has such an abnegating relationship toward sex. They’ll show us everything but the jewels, in scenes that are crafted to excise all emotional content from the frottage.

VI. In which the author (finally) sees one of his fans buck naked and writhing
This was in Portland, where a striking, platinum blond walked up before my reading and introduced herself. She told me she was a friend of my pal Jane and that she did an act with music, and invited me to come see her show after the reading.

I knew from Jane that this woman had gone to Williams (possibly the most uptight college in the entire country), that she was “a genius” and a social activist. I naturally assumed she was some kind of performance artist.


By the time me and my pals walked into the club, Jane’s friend was gone, replaced by a creature named Viva Las Vegas, a heartbreakingly limber and uniformly tanned stripper with a penchant for exotic yoga positions and a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. Without dwelling on particulars, I feel compelled to note that Portland allows full nudity in bars and that Viva appeared to have more than a passing familiarity with hair removal products.

VII. In which the author concedes defeat
When I talked with my (male) friends from the road, they wanted to know one thing: whether I was getting laid.

These friends had a great deal of difficulty expressing, in complete sentences, their disappointment when I reported to them that I was not:

“Dude, c’mon,” “no-brainer, man,” “close the deal.”

They had expected some juicy stories, after all—and not the kind you read in some damn book. They wanted Penthouse “Forum"-type action. Exhibitionistic librarians. Swedish twins. A ménage à trois (at least) with horny groupies.

Strangely enough, I did receive a few interesting e-mails during the next month or so. It seems that a number of my friends were reading the stories to their partners, using the book, in essence, as a kind of highbrow sexual aid.

After an initial period of confused envy, I’ve come around to liking this idea. I think it’s just great, actually. I’ve gotten in the habit of sending these folks a very special gift: one of my unused condoms.

Steve Almond is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal, a collection of short stories. He lives in Boston. This piece originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.