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1298 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Lolita on Steroids

[On the Run with Dick and Jane
by Robert Gover]

A Review by Duff Brenna

Hopewell Publications (December 2006)

Cover of On the Run With Dick and Jane, by Robert Gover

See also Amazon

A lot of praise has been heaped on Robert Gover’s novels. He’s been called a sensational writer, a caricaturist, an author with a perfect ear that never falters, a genius, a true pioneer, a J.D. Salinger with guts, remarkable, exuberant, first rate, extraordinary—Brilliant! Expressions of admiration have come from the likes of Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, Henry Miller, and even Bob Dylan. The list of Gover lovers could go on for many pages.

But the unfortunate truth is that for all quirky, edgy, original writers held in high esteem, there are and always will be the nay-sayers who condemn them. That’s the other side of the Gover coin, the not-so-admiring, not-so-laudatory critics.

Truth is, American conservatives hate Robert Gover’s work. Some have called him a pornographer, a political pornographer, a social pornographer, a cultural pornographer, an intellectual pornographer.

He was once told: “You are an unschooled writer of four-letter words, and saying such filth went out with the hippie sixties.”

And: “You wrote a little book that became a big bestseller. It went to your head and you became a drug addict and alcoholic. End of story.”

Also: “I’m surprised you were taken seriously back in the early sixties—your novel was less than two hundred pages, the plot was thin and so were the characters.”

The list of Gover bashing goes on and on: “Your book undermined our traditional values, so we can hardly expect critics to include it among the best of Western Culture, can we.”

“That novel was controversial when it first appeared. Since then, the controversy has been won by the conservatives, and they hate that book.”

“You made a very good living as a writer for ten or fifteen years. Now it’s time to get another job.”

Why so much vitriol, so much hate, so much contempt and scorn? If an ultra-conservative coalition is attacking you with such energy, does that mean you’re really awful and no decent person should read your work, or does it mean you’re probably doing something right, something this country perhaps desperately needs? I’m talking about the kind of writing that rocks our world, rocks us out of our lazy complacency, writing that jolts us awake and makes us question ourselves about our views of life in this country and elsewhere.

Robert Gover writes about taboo subjects such as miscegenation (mixing of the races), underage sex, corrupt politics, and politicians and money. Back in his “bestseller” days, the ’60’s and ’70’s, Gover’s books were considered to be “in bad taste,” in the way that Henry Miller’s writing was in bad taste. Before writers like Robert Gover came along, you’d dare not use curse words in a novel. Even Norman Mailer wasn’t allowed to cuss when he wrote The Naked and the Dead. Instead of “fuck,” he had to have his soldiers say “fug,” and approximately half of those “fugs” were deleted in the first edition of Mailer’s first book. Writers of Mailer’s early days had to dance around sex as well, and you certainly couldn't portray race relations in an honest light. How in the world was a realistic story ever going to be told?

James Jones in From Here to Eternity helped pave the way when he refused to delete the f-word from his book. Along comes Robert Gover a decade later, who follows up on Jones’ ground-breaking use of realistic language. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history. No one bats an eye at the f-word in a novel now. In fact, it’s so commonplace that it’s on the verge of losing its mystery, its mystique, its shock value.

The Gover controversy continued when, after fifteen years of rejection, his novel On the Run with Dick and Jane was finally published. This is another novel that prompts the puritan rightwing to hold its collective nose. Why? Because it deals uncompromisingly with Sex Trafficking of underage girls. Its main protagonist is a twelve-year-old named Jane Doyle who is in a North Carolina orphanage called, ironically, “Grandmother’s Home.”

Jane lost her virginity early in life. She was only eight when her drunken father deflowered her. Her mother died young and eventually Jane was taken away from her boozy, abusive father and handed over to the orphanage, where the sexual abuse not only continued, it increased. None of Jane’s orifices kept their innocence.

What Jane learns from her experiences is that her body and her ability to manipulate men sexually are her best means of coping with what is a horrific life. She is sold to a man who pimps for an organization of sex traffickers. But instead of going along with those who would prostitute her, she runs away by hiding in the back of a van owned by sixty-year-old Dick Steel. His wife has died and he is on his way to California to throw her ashes into the ocean.

Two days into his trip Dick discovers Jane hiding in his van. When he threatens to turn her in, she says she will accuse him of raping her. In effect, Jane blackmails Dick into taking her to California with him. On the way there she eventually convinces him that some very bad men are after her, bad men who want to sell her to an overseas sex slavery operation.

Her story might seem farfetched, but nothing that happens in the novel is farfetched at all. In fact Gover’s premise was made highly relevant recently in Vanity Fair’s May 24, 2011 issue under the headline: “Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door,” an exposé written by Amy Fine Collins in which she details several actual cases of underage girls sold into America’s commercial sex market. Collins calls these girls “modern day slaves.”

In Gover’s book, Jane Doyle is “twelve going on forty.” The average age of girls sold into prostitution is thirteen. They are called “Little Barbies.” Which pretty much describes Jane. Using her well-trained sexuality she is able to get her way with most of the men she meets, except for Dick whose strong moral sense won’t allow him to succumb to her charms. Everything Gover describes in On the Run with Dick and Jane, which, as I said, he wrote fifteen years before the Vanity Fair article and Collins’ in-depth investigation, has proven to be true. No matter how much we might cringe and turn away from the subject, the fact is, as Collins concludes, “...that [sex slavery has] become more lucrative...[it is] much safer to sell malleable teens than drugs or guns. A pound of heroin or an AK 47 can be retailed once, but a young girl can be sold 10 to 15 times a day.” Under-age prostitution “is on its way to becoming one of the worst crimes in the U.S.,” Collins concludes.

Nearly everything the article tells us is already in Gover’s tale about Jane Doyle and her friends, which is why I first entitled this presentation “Robert Gover: A Prescient Voice in American Literature.” Collins makes the point in her article that “we’re still in the Dark Ages with trafficking because—unlike incest, rape, and domestic battering, trafficking generates massive revenues—$32 billion worldwide.”

So who really cares if social conservatives and their ilk call Gover a pornographer—a political pornographer, a social pornographer, a cultural pornographer, an intellectual pornographer—it doesn’t matter at all because what Gover is really doing—not just in On the Run with Dick and Jane, but in all his novels—is telling the TRUTH, Truth with a capital T, and no amount of baiting or hating or vitriol will make him stop. I, for one, wouldn’t have him any other way.


SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury