You peel one skin and there’s another skin underneath it—all stories are true. -John Edgar Wideman
I drove up Winchester Road (in Southeast Memphis, Tennessee) toward Mendenhall Road looking for a Wal-Mart store to buy socks. I’d left the Benjamin L. Hooks Public Library with plenty on my mind, still thinking about a book which had caught my attention, in its introduction, a man, the author, who’d spent time in prison. He described how he’d had sex with other men while in prison, but he, as a heterosexual, did not really derive any sexual pleasure from the men he had sex with. He explained in graphic detail what it was like to penetrate another man, and why the act, for him, to stick his dick in another mans ass, had meant nothing more than the desire to dominate control and power over the individual, “to break him,” he wrote. I thought about the ways in which men think about the power of their sex organs.
My cell phone buzzed as I finished my last Belvita breakfast biscuit, washed it down with the final swallow of sweet creamy coffee, before swiping my phone to glance quickly at the notification just received: an email from Detroit author J. Paul Ghetto with a fresh Kindle copy attachment of his recently released novel, The Truth About Harry Goodman.
According to J. Paul Ghetto, The Truth About Harry Goodman “is an excursion into the mundane life of a young professional who suddenly finds himself immersed in a world that most men only fantasize about.” The central character is Harry Goodman whose failed marriage has sent him into a tailspin of masked regret and sarcasm. The bulk of the novel is about sex sex and more sex. (Sex is about power and sometimes anger, particularly the seemingly dissociative encounters of Harry Goodman.) The other characters are Helen Goodman, Florence Rabinowitz, Jasmine/Janet Marie Scott, Dr. Patrice Swofford, and a few other minor characters. But the most interesting characters are Janet and Dr. Swofford.
Oddly, J. Paul spends little time developing Helen’s character. This is important because his failed marriage seems to serve as the trajectory of things to come, and covertly explains Harry’s cold and callous behavior towards the women he encounters throughout the novel. We never get to see any of Helen’s humanity; we never get to see the inner-workings of a marriage that lasted so long yet produced no fruit. What little information Harry does share about her is mostly about sexual repression, regret, humiliation, and emasculation:
He hadn’t had sex in over 14 months, because of the problems that he and his wife Helen were having. Harry knew that he couldn’t go much longer without some loving…. All those years we were together, and I could never get Helen to suck this dick…. Helen Goodman was the only woman Harry had ever had intercourse with. At that moment he realized that being single, for the first time in seventeen years, would present him with unlimited sexual opportunities…. His relationship with Helen had been slow in developing. The prolonged courtship, the one year-long sexless engagement, then 17 years of a loveless, childless marriage. Harry decided not to complain or think too much about what he was doing with Janet. He felt like he was overdue for a good relationship with a woman (9, 38, 39-40, 57-58).
Janet and Dr. Swofford are two of J. Paul’s best-developed characters, but he ultimately fails to really expand their possibilities because he cannot think of Harry’s initial dilemma in empathetic terms of a broken and disappointed human being, or how Helen has destroyed what was once possibly a good man. Harry never really gets to mourn the crushing pain of a failed marriage; we never get to understand the pain of lost matrimonial trust, the betrayal of a spouse, or what it must feel like to be dumped after 17 years of marriage because Harry prefers sexual escapism over confrontation. Helen Goodman was the only piece of ass Harry ever had, and we know that this is a serious issue for Harry because this is the point at which are introduced to Harry Goodman. Immediately, J. Paul places an emotional barrier between the reader and his character by making Harry aloof and redirected towards a predictable path of self-destruction and blatant misogyny. In this sense, Janet and Patrice are central to our understanding of what is really the truth about Harry.
From the moment we meet Janet (as Jasmine), she is sexualized and objectified by both J. Paul’s misogynistic gaze and Harry Goodman’s pornographic intentions. While visiting a sleazy bar that “glowed red like a smoldering log in a hearth,” the bar’s owner, Hernandez, summons Jasmine to Harry’s table. When Jasmine approaches the table, she is immediately sexualized, objectified and ultimately victimized like the Venus Hottentot:
“Jasmine, come here!” Hernandez booming voice caused Harry to open his eyes wider…. Harry eyed a tall dark-skinned woman, with shoulder length platinum hair, dressed only in a silver thong and thigh high leather boots, approaching them. She walked up and stood between Harry and Hernandez, pressing her large bare breast against Harry’s leather jacket. She smiled knowingly at Harry, her almond shaped eyes focused on him. He felt a chill go down his spine. “Hank, this here is Jasmine. Say hello to Hank, Jasmine.” Jasmine grabbed Harry’s coat collar. “Hello Hank, I’m very pleased to meet you. Why don’t you come with me?” Harry was impressed at Jasmine’s proper elocution. She tugged on Harry’s coat lapel… Jasmine led him by the hand down a long hallway. … Jasmine opened the door at the end of the hall…. as they entered the room. …Jasmine sat him down on the plush black leather sectional against the rear wall of the room. She walked to the end of the couch and turned the music down…. “What would you like me to do for you Hank?” “Dance for me Jasmine.” He really wanted her to suck his dick but knew better than to ask. As if on cue, R. Kelly broke into ‘Seems Like You’re Ready.’ Jasmine began slowly moving her wide hips, side to side (19-20).
This scene is interesting because it sets the tone of Harry’s intentions for the remainder of the novel. J. Paul’s characterization of Jasmine and Janet (Janet is probably a nod to popular 80s porn star Janet Jacme) makes sense: first, we are introduced to Jasmine (“the polar opposite of Helen; confident, emotionally secure, tall, dark-skinned, and sexually adventurous with a solid educational background”) as a stripper seductress who’s ready to fuck a strange man at the drop of a dime. In fact, her job is to fuck strange men at the drop of a dime. Fast forward, as Janet, she’s an ambitious Ph.D. student canoodling Harry in hopes of jump-starting her career with a sweet intern hookup which will fulfill grad school requirements. She’s a former wife of the Prince of Qatar who left her several cases of Absinthe – the “ancient elixir of the gods.” That’s cool and all but do we really want to suppose that a young Ph.D. candidate would jeopardize her future just for something that’s going to come to her anyway since she’s already gotten this far – presumably from being a dedicated, smart, intelligent and ambitiously career-minded and goal oriented woman? Why must Janet be so unscrupulously available for Harry’s degrading and misogynistic fantasies?:
You may not get down like that, but I do. You can take all the pictures of me you want. You want me to give you written permission? I will.” She unfastened the third button on Harry’s dress shirt, slid her hand inside of it and began massaging his right nipple (49).
In Chapter 17, Dr. Swofford (J. Paul’s only piece of reliable evidence that Harry is not a sexual sociopath) enters the scene for sole purpose of fulfilling more of Harry’s erotic sexual fantasies. The sexual tension is very well done, the dialogue is superb. Clearly, at this point, we see that Harry has a problem with strong, independent, educated and successful women thus Jasmine’s character is necessarily complex i.e. the woman she is versus the woman Harry wants her to be, so she must exist on dual levels as Jasmine and Janet, both despised and subjected to Harry’s misogynist desires, in order for Harry to act throughout the novel. J. Paul places the weight and responsibility of Harry’s obsession with Dr. Swofford – the strong, successful, powerful, independent type – squarely on the back of Janet, who wants to please Harry by any means necessary: it is Janet who (for the sake of Harry’s ego) agrees to seduce Dr. Swofford for him as a gift:
“I know you wanna hit that.” Janet reached over and put her left hand on top of his right. “I’m your girl, Harry and you should know by now that I’m down for you. If you wanna bang Princess Patrice, I can make it happen for you. She’ll be my present to you” (100-101).
Sadly, there is little substance in these women because there is no balance with J. Paul’s characterization of them; they are all sexualized in some way or another, and Harry’s “twelve inches” is the only thing that will render them worthy and useful: Harry must control them with his powerful dick. Other than the platitudinous labels and condescending descriptions of these women as career-minded professionals, the potential to be full, feminine human beings are undermined and overshadowed by J. Paul’s pornographic treatment of them, and Harry Goodman’s powerful and “humongous dick.” All of the women in the book are sexualized. Even Florence Rabinowitz, his wife’s lawyer, is a potential fuck-mate: “Florence Rabinowitz…. moved toward Harry, pressing her ample bosom against his chest… Harry watched her big ass move rhythmically with the pleats in her skirt, as she walked away from him” (6).
The thing that makes us human is our ability to empathize. The problem with J. Paul’s novel is that we cannot feel Harry Goodman because he is cold and heartless towards the women he encounters. The sadness of Harry Goodman is that he is unable to confront the issue of how and why his wife destroyed a good man. The tragedy of Harry is that he doesn’t have the courage to face Helen because he cannot forgive the woman who betrayed him, so that he may find closure and redemption. That’s the truth about Harry Goodman.