Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt, New Directions Books, 2011, 273 pp
I was prepared to be grossed out by this book. I only read it because it was on the Tournament of Books list, pitted against Salvage the Bones, of all things. After all, reading about a loser who turns his sexual fantasies into a profitable business is not something a self-respecting feminist does.
Who knew that Helen DeWitt has actually created a feminist attack on not only sexual exploitation but also sales as a profession, corporate life, men in general, and much more. She did this without preaching or moralizing, without stridency and with hilarity and great insight.
She probably didn't plan it that way, but she has contributed to my inadvertent 2012 study of satire. If you enjoy a good satire, this is one of a select few.
Joe is a failed salesman who is sitting around doing what bored male losers often do when he gets a lightning bolt to his deadened mind. The result is Lightning Rods, a business which provides anonymous sexual relief throughout the working day to alpha-male employees, thereby saving employers from those dreaded sexual harassment suits.
DeWitt creates this voice, which she gives to Joe and almost everyone else; a sort of deadpan, cliched speak which always begins with "the way I see it is..." Somehow she manages to keep it up throughout the novel without it being annoying. In fact, it becomes part of the hilarity.
Whenever Joe gets stumped he calls in Lucille, one of his lightning rods, who always comes up with a good solution. By the end of the story several women have saved Joe's career, income, and business many times over.
The way I see it is, this book is not for everyone. Judging from some of the reviews, including those of the TOB judge and commentators (all male), I don't think a lot of readers actually get it. If you are squeamish about sex as a commodity, or about sex in general, or if you like your sex combined with romance, Lightning Rods is probably not the book for you.
If however you enjoy seeing male chauvinist pigs taking it in the you-know-where, along with Big Business, the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Christian Right, give it a try. I'm glad I did and I doubt I will ever forget it.
(Lightning Rods is available in hardcover, paperback and audio CD by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)