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An unabashedly naughty compilation of fictional tales of sex and the workplace, Grunt and Groan feels all the more titillating because of its slender, portable size. Killing time between points A and B is vastly more interesting when reading about hopped-up worker bees satisfying their urges in plain view of their colleagues, as in Moe Berg's "Truth Serum." Of course, providing distraction for commuters was likely not the only intent of editors Matthew Firth and Max Maccari. The 16 stories included here--which pull back the covers on myriad peccadilloes--aim for something grander, be it humour, irony, or the illumination of basic human weirdness.
Mostly, the assembled group of writers succeeds in lifting sex off the page and making it resonant (easier said than done, as readers of Penthouse Letters will attest). Some stories really shine. J.E. Knowles's "I Walk the Line," about simple obsession, takes on a furious edge with the added awareness that Knowles is actually a woman writing in the character of a married man. Rachel Claret's wildly kinky "Spiceman"--vegetable love, anyone?--provides uneasy laughs, as does Joy VanNuys's "Spawning" (what is this sex-with-food thing?). Firth's own "White Hat," meanwhile, gives us revenge on a bullying supervisor that most of us can only dream of. Surrealism takes root in Michael Bryson's creep-show tale "The Lizard" and David Rose's dreamscape-like "Smoke," but really, Grunt and Groan works best when we get straightforward descriptions of regular folks bumping uglies. And while closer copyediting would have spared us some egregious errors--the misspelling of Marilyn Monroe's name, for one--this is still good fun for saucy grownups. --Kim Hughes
When it comes to reading about sex, one is faced with the quandary of when to draw the lines between smut and erotica, trash and literature. Erotica occupies that shady nether region between art and pornography, as its purpose is to arouse and engage the reader sensually while offering some semblance of plot, character and style. Artfulness in exploring the cocksure, whimsical, or perverse also defines erotica and is the one characteristic that is sadly lacking in Grunt and Groan, Mark Firths anthology of sex and work. Although Firth states in his introduction that Grunt and Groan is the anthology of work and sex, not the anthology of sex in the workplace, there is little evidence to support this as many of the stories are mundane narratives about the workplace with tagged on sex scenes. According to Firth, we are slaves to work. We are slaves to sex, and his desire to lay down these twin obsessions is at the heart -or rather groin-of the collection.
Many of the stories deal with the apparently fine line between forced and consensual sex: in Serve and Neglect a cop seduces a new recruit and is accused of being a sexual predator; in Ratchet and Bear two guys hauling appliances force themselves on every spot along the Trans-Canada where fairies waited with their mouths open; and, in People Skills a gone-wrong robbery and a rape, is at the centre of the story. The thread of cruelty that runs though many of the stories, and the numerous stories about sexual predators, make it difficult to find the humanity and sensuality of the sex acts depicted.
More compelling are the playful stories in this collection, like Truth Serum, by former Pursuit of Happiness singer, Moe Berg, in which an office worker masturbates relentlessly to the image of his coveted co-worker. Michael Brysons quirky story, Lizard, which tells the tale of love in a pet shop is also fun if a little cryptic. And Badabing Badaboom in which a photo-copy repairman is seduced by a nubile Trixie Trucker, is interesting enough, although the cliché howling like a banshee could have been edited out. Like the co-worker in the claims department who you entertain fantasies of hauling off to a secluded custodian closet, these stories are cute and hot and play on fantasy and desire.
The two most noteworthy stories in this collection are Harold Hoefles The Nature of the Embrace, and Spawning. In Hoefles story, a pair of too-cool-for-school high-school teachers negotiate love and pedagogy. Full of quippy dialogue, Hoefles story goes beyond the wham-bam-thank-you maam predictability because the characters are three-dimensional and the story focuses less on sex and more on the revelation that the adult world of professionalism is only marginally more mature than schoolyard politics. In the sensual and intriguing Spawning, a sous chef becomes infatuated with her head chef. The sensory details about food and restaurant work, combined with sexual tension, make this a delectable and satisfying read.
As a whole, however, this collection is more sordid than sensual. While darker sides of sexuality and exploitation can be compelling, the overriding use of sex as a tool for manipulation in most of the stories makes it difficult to connect and sympathize with either the victims or the assailants as carnality is favoured over capturing their uniquely human drives.
Ibi Kaslik (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada