Swimming Sweet Arrow BOOK review

Book Reviews
Swimming Sweet Arrow BOOK review
May 1, 2000, 00:16

SWIMMING SWEET ARROW by Mauren Gibbon; Little, Brown & Co. 2001

Swimming Sweet Arrow is easily the most involving and spectacularly artful yet slyly understated book this male animal has had the pleasure to read this century. I qualify my praise with the “male” disclaimer in that it's written by a female from a uniquely female point of view (or appears to be as far as I can tell). Part of the kick for me is encountering the otherness; ladies ain't gonna have that shock, or might find that aspect mishandled: I can't know.

Notwithstanding, among this novel's many achievements is establishing and maintaining a powerfully distinctive narrative voice whose particular vocabulary and syntax yields very precise yet complicated shadings of meaning and tells us more about the character wielding it than any other literary device. It's an unusual voice, the language is plain, frank and not a little bit coarse, yet conveys, probes, deconstructs and proposes some heady statements about the unspoken ideological agendas concerning diverse aspects of life.

The voice belongs to Swimming Sweet Arrow's protagonist, Evangeline. “Vangie” as her friends and family call her is a teenaged girl living in contemporary, rural Pennsylvania. She's thoroughly blue collar and without aspirations to any other station in life; in her community there really aren't any. Yet she's ambitious, inquisitive, restless. These tendencies are all expressed in sexual derring-do. As the novel opens, we find her and high school sweetheart Del and their best friends June and Ray, are regularly getting together to fuck in Del's beat up old car—one couple in the front seat and the other in the back, but absolutely free of perviness. The girls are simply refusing to sacrifice their friendship for the sake of romantic intimacy, determined to have their cake and eat it too.

When they graduate high school, both couples go their separate ways to set up housekeeping and pursue further departures from sexual norms. June and Ray move in with his brother Luke; the latter and June fall in love and she decides to juggle the two relationships refusing to give Ray up. Meanwhile, Vangie determinedly sets no limits on the sexual practices she'll participate in and Del turns out to be quite inventive and demanding. He introduces dildos, anal penetration, numerous intricate and uncomfortable positions. Vangie never turns refuses, oddly enough not out of fear of alienating his affection but because she thinks saying “no” would narrow otherwise infinite possibility between them in all sorts of areas.

Among those is intense intimacy and enormous empathy that they've actively cultivated. Vangie sees the seeds of his acceptance of her in Del's enthusiasm for cunnilingus and sees her faith rewarded by his ongoing simple yet profound statements of love. This occurs in contrast with the possessiveness, mutual exploitation, compromise and accommodation that appear to be the rule in the rest of their community. Other couples' relations seem rooted in acquiescence out of habit or, worse, to avoid confrontation. Those couples never arrive at the deep, authentic understanding and appreciation of one another Vangie and Del have, at least initially. Well worth the odd poke in the heinie as far as she's concerned. Eventually peer pressure and substance abuse cause Del to begin conforming to conventional standards of male/female interaction and their idyll falls apart in violence and sexual abuse forcing Vangie to do some hard growing up.

What's remarkable is Vangie's ongoing analysis of her circumstances—all expressed in that peculiarly underschooled yet articulate voice. While she doesn't have a lot of obvious options, she always assumes responsibility for her situation and assumes that she does have control to make changes, hopefully for the better though at times they turn out for the worse. This includes willingly entering into situations where she is sexually submissive, even degraded. And some times exults in it and at others is revulsed.

Which never deters her from continuing to plow onwards.

Swimming Sweet Arrow does read like a great dirty book at times. Then slowly, quietly, you find yourself drawn into and inhabiting Vangie's perspective… which, of course is the mark of great literature.

-Howard Wuelfing

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