So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. Robert Gover

I picked up Robert Gover's One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding to read because of the recent events in Durham, North Carolina where a black stripper, hired to perform at a Duke University lacrosse team party, has accused three white males at the party of raping her. Published 45 years ago this book has nothing to do with rape, but it does deal a lot with issues of sexuality as it relates to class and race, privilege and poverty in the southern United States.

Jim is a white college sophomore in a Southern college on a Friday night with a hundred dollars in his pocket. Kitten is a 14 year old African-American prostitute. Their paths cross as Jim visits a "Negro house of ill repute." The book proceeds with Jim and Kitten narrating alternate chapters. Each sees the other as an answer to their needs, and their encounter builds into a weekend of misunderstandings as their different backgrounds and expectations keep them from having meaningful communication. Yet, despite the insurmountable cultural chasm that separates them, their determination eventually makes small inroads possible.

This book made history at the time because of the frank discussion of sexuality and racial differences. Today, the terminology seems remarkably tame, even quaint. Yet the issues raised about sexual morality and class privilege are as relevant as ever.

Gore Vidal said: "There is always a division between what a society does and what it says it does, and what it feels about what it says it does. But nowhere is this conflict more vividly revealed than in the American middle class's attitude toward sex, that continuing pleasure and sometimes duty we have, with the genius of true pioneers, managed to tie in knots. Robert Gover unties no knots but he shows them plain and I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country, which is most of the population."

To truly appreciate this story it is important to remember that it is fiction. No 14 year old girls were lured into prostitution in the writing or reading of this book. Robert Gover states it as follows: "The caricatures in this story never were and aren't. If a reader happens to transmute them from typo-alphabetic symbols to figments of his imagination, they will continue to not exist, except as figments of his imagination. This also applies to the events which are this story - they didn't happen and don't. Any reader who imagines them happening I asked to please remember he is doing just that - imagining. In other words, the following is a made-up, untrue story."

As an untrue story, this book still does a great job of pointing out, through caricature, some of the seemingly timeless problems of class and privilege in American society, especially as they relate to the sexual behavior of the middle class.


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