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The Gross-Out Effect

Fed up with unresponsive editors, novelist Geoffrey Bent wrote a sick little satire about a necrophiliac. Last month, after three decades of trying, he finally got published.

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Geoffrey Bent won't tell just anyone how many novels he's written. "If you tell people you've written one or two novels they'll give you a friendly expression," he says. "But anything beyond four novels, they start to think something is basically wrong with you. It's one of those things like masturbation. Why are you doing this, they wonder. What is your problem?"

Over the past 28 years, Bent has written not two, not four, but a dozen novels, and he's almost finished with number 13. He's also written two collections of short stories. Until last month, it looked like none of them would ever see the light of day.

But on August 15, Bent's fifth novel, Silent Partners, was published by the Florida Literary Foundation, a Sarasota-based nonprofit press with an emphasis on subjects it perceives as neglected--race relations, gay and lesbian lifestyles, women's issues, immigration, human rights, labor and popular economics, the media, cultural criticism, art and art education, and international literature.

Bent's book, on the face of it anyway, is about a necrophiliac who comes to run a chain of funeral homes. Now 53, he was 26 when he wrote it, in 1976. He hasn't revised the manuscript much since it was first written--it's 99 percent the same, he says, with only minor tweaks. Though it can pass for cultural criticism, it began as a blatant play for attention: he hoped it would come off as more marketable than his four previous "quiet" novels. The earlier books dealt with "everyday aspirations and frustrations in love and work," he says, "the small realizations one acquires in life."

He sent each of his first three novels to at least 40 publishers, to no avail. Certain his fourth would suffer the same fate, he didn't bother sending it to anyone. Instead, while the typewriter was still warm, he started a new book. Like this: "No one can say he has experienced the ultimate in sensual pleasure until he feels the exquisitely deliberate progress of a maggot crawling over the tip of his penis. It's like a clitoris with a will of its own!"

"I got sick of people asking me, 'Will it sell? Will it sell?'" Bent explains. "And as often happens when one takes that kind of approach, I went too far, probably, to the other extreme."

Protagonist Warren Piece is a nihilist's nihilist--imagine Dostoyevsky's Underground Man freebasing steroids and Viagra. A perceptive outsider, he hates everything about himself, right down to his hackneyed pun of a name. Spurred by an urge to break boundaries, he couples with dead things regardless of gender or species. Eventually he travels to to Washington, D.C., to assault the Unknown Soldier.

Warren's not your typical modern psychopathic antihero: though he's cruel, he's no killer. Little else can be said in his defense--he is a completely offensive character--but the persistent rhythm of his seductively cynical voice can assuage the queasiness his acts inspire. Well before he exhumes anyone, he describes the funeral of his mother, whose face had a large purple birthmark:

"Then came time to close the coffin. I was expected to do this since I was her son. Instead of kissing the cheek that was closest, I leaned across the body to kiss the blemished cheek as I always had. I couldn't see the blemish under all the makeup, but I knew it lurked there. The sensation was strange: the skin was so soft and yet so cold, creating a contrast like hot fudge on ice cream. As I leaned back, I could taste flesh tone makeup on my lips, and a small, dark mark appeared on my mother's cheek like a bruise in the shape of a kiss."

Warren sees his odd pursuit as just another variation on normal human behavior: "People are forever treating the dead as the living. Necrophilia is just an extreme example of this. If you had spent as much time in cemeteries as I have, you'd know what I mean. All the silk-lined coffins and gardens of flowers are aimed at ideas as abstract as God. But there also exists a subtler form of necrophilia. A distant cousin, I admit, resembling the original not so much in practice as in direction. This generic brand embraces all the activities aimed at an unresponsive end, like a wet dream that's all one sided and leaves you with nothing more substantial than messy pajamas. I've always referred to activities of this ilk as 'corpse fucking,' and take it from an expert, there's a lot of it around."

The book isn't very long (178 pages, to be exact), but Warren manages to comment on all the big issues: art, politics, friendship, religion, and business. None of it, in Warren's mind, is any more worthy of celebration than his own deviancy. He justifies his amoral judgments in a way that almost makes sense--which in itself can cause some discomfort on the part of the average reader. And apparently on the part of the average acquiring editor.

Within about six months of finishing the book, Bent had his first bite. That contact would lead to a contract. But that contract and then another would perish in the ensuing years, along with several other promising leads. Every few years, he'd buy an updated copy of Writer's Market and look for places he hadn't submitted it before. More than 400 houses would eventually receive a copy of Silent Partners.

He tried to be optimistic, but each new rejection stung as sharp as the last.

"I did think I was fucking a dead horse," he admits. "At times the book seemed as dead as any of Warren Piece's partners. There are times, in the early hours of the morning, when you wake up and you wonder if anything will ever happen."

Bent, who now lives in Glen Ellyn, grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. By the time he was 15, he was "absorbed in the novels of Dostoyevsky and the paintings of Rembrandt" and had decided he wanted to write and paint.

Bent's father wrote advertising copy. When he learned of his son's literary aspirations, he assigned writing exercises. The first called for a description of a man making coffee with a hangover.

It was a good assignment, Bent says, but his father often ripped apart his work. "I learned very quickly to make every word count," he says.

He moved on to writing his own short stories. By the time he was a senior at Luther North (a private Christian high school in Portage Park), he'd started work on "The Golden Mean," a novel about an influential teacher. He hadn't finished it when he enrolled in an associate degree program at Wilbur Wright College in 1968. He intended to study English and art. In his first semester, a fateful scheduling snafu that caused him to be bumped from two other English courses landed him in George Steinbrecher's Composition 101 class.

Steinbrecher, who'd taught for decades in the City Colleges, had a doctorate from the University of Chicago and a specialty in Theodore Dreiser. For their first assignment, he asked his students to write essays introducing themselves.

"I remember hesitating. If I put down that I write, he's going to ask to see something," says Bent. "This was one of the smartest things I ever did, because of course he did ask to see some other writing. And this started a lifelong interest."

Bent showed Steinbrecher a few chapters from his novel. "He liked it, but his comments were all about how what he read would develop later," he says.

Steinbrecher helped Bent get a scholarship to Northeastern Illinois University in 1970. In 1972 Bent graduated from NEIU with a bachelor's in English.

He continued to write and paint, supporting himself as a stock clerk and a runner at the Mercantile Exchange. Toward the end of the decade he got a job as a library assistant at the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, where he still works today.

His painting began to earn him some recognition. His basic, representational images, which have been displayed in 18 states, often read like punch lines, encouraging viewers to imagine their own setups: a Porta Potti in a jungle labeled EMPLOYEES ONLY, a middle-aged woman brandishing a pistol, the carcass of a raccoon lying in the street before a car dealership where each car sports an American flag on its antenna.

As a fiction writer, however, he remained completely unread--except by George Steinbrecher. Anytime Bent finished a piece of writing, he showed it to his old teacher. They socialized too: "He'd take my wife and I out to dinner," Bent says. "We'd have delightful conversations, and we'd always start out with a little champagne at his apartment. He'd make these terrible hors d'oeuvres, but the champagne was always very good. Then we'd go out to a nice restaurant. It was a wonderful corrective."

"Geoff was one who had enough independence to attract George's critical attention," says Steinbrecher's brother William, who sometimes joined them on these outings. "He remained interested in Geoff's work because of its quality and unique subject matter."

Bent describes his fourth novel, "The Thirty Years War," as "a chamber piece that explores a family with a Protestant father and a Catholic mother." Though he wasn't sending it out, he still wanted Steinbrecher to read the manuscript. When he took it to the teacher's apartment, he brought along a few pages from the new project, then called "Confessions of a Necrophile," to read aloud.

"It was the first day I was writing, and George was delighted with it," he said. "If one has an audience of one, that's actually all you need as far as a validating experience."

Bent finished Silent Partners in four months. "I was red-hot," he says. "I was writing on the bus. I was writing on the subway. I could just go back to it, like a cassette tape you take out and you put it in and it starts right at that point again. In many ways it was the easiest book I ever wrote."

The idea was sparked by a medical textbook about sexual perversions he had seen as a college student. He can't recall the title, but he remembers the stern warning on the cover: OWNERSHIP OF THIS VOLUME IS RESTRICTED TO MEDICAL PERSONNEL ONLY.

"I thought, if you'll pardon the expression, 'This is virgin territory,'" he says.

He combed psychology texts but found little information on necrophilia. One book said the behavior was so rare that generalizations about it could not be made. So Bent relied mostly on his imagination.

"I think when I found the voice, it was like, this is something that is palpable," he says. "As long as it fits into that voice, I knew there was a certain authenticity to everything he would do, no matter how outlandish or crazy."

Bent sent the book to about 40 publishers, and by the end of 1976 he'd signed a contract. Four years later he reached a settlement with that publisher that prohibits him from talking about how and why the contract was negated.

After control of the book returned to him, he mailed out another round of manuscripts. "I was getting a wonderful response, but everyone was scared shitless," he said. "I had half a dozen publishers who asked to see it, but they would sit on it for two years. They would send back these wonderful letters that said 'We liked it, but it really didn't fit in our list.'"

Bent says, for instance, that he got a complimentary letter from Alan Wilson, who ran Citadel Press, which had been publishing some "quality fiction." But Wilson had approached the head of Citadel's publicity department, who'd said he wouldn't know how to sell a book like that. Another editor told Bent she couldn't imagine her mother reading the book.

Meanwhile Bent wrote a new novel, "The Trojan Variations," which he describes as "a reimagination of Homer's Iliad." He couldn't find a publisher for that either.

In 1992, Bent married Jeanette Alexander. They'd met while she was a paralegal at Sonnenschein. "I first saw her talking to someone by one of the copy machines," he says. "There was this vein sticking out of her neck, she was so engrossed in what she was saying, and I thought, There's a passionate woman!"

The manuscript for Silent Partners went with the couple on their honeymoon to Paris. A libertarian-oriented house called Handshake Press was based there, and its listing in Writer's Market specified that it would accept only "face-to-face" submissions. So Bent took a break from the great museums to stop by the office--which, he likes to note, was on Rue de la Tombe-Issoire. It looked like a frat house filled with manuscripts, cats, and people. "One guy was cooking pasta," Bent recalls. Jim Haynes, Handshake's chief editor, was out of the country, but the business manager took the manuscript and said he would get it to him.

When Haynes returned to Paris, he declined to read Silent Partners out of concern for his weak stomach. But the business manager, Joe Francis, did read it, and he liked it. Francis ran his own small firm, Anamorphic Press, which published books on art and counterculture. Francis wanted Silent Partners to be Anamorphic's first novel.

So Bent signed another contract, but a few months later Francis informed him that he didn't think he'd have time to promote the book properly. He put Bent in touch with some other publishers that specialized in sexually daring work.

In 1993, Bent discussed a serialization of the novel with the Chicago-based erotica journal Libido. But when the editors saw the actual pages, they balked.

"An editor sent me a note saying how much she liked the excerpts, but she said, 'We don't really think it would fit our magazine, because our magazine is really an aid to masturbation,'" Bent recalls. "She was right."

Bent's 12th novel, "The Sins of the Fathers," is a 1,100-page family epic. He started it in 1995 and finished it in 2000.

Steinbrecher read the tome and declared it the best thing Bent had ever written. But he gave Bent some tough love: No one was going to publish 1,100 pages by an unknown. Bent needed something else to break in--something like Silent Partners. Even though the book had already been rejected by hundreds of publishers, there were always new houses cropping up, and new readers at old houses.

Bent thought the public might be better prepared for the book than it had been in 1976--or 1982, or 1992. "The world has gotten coarser, and a little more open," he says.

A round of submissions last year elicited more nibbles, including one from a publisher of gay erotica called STARbooks Press. Though an editor there liked it, again, like a funeral dirge at an orgy, it didn't fit in.

But STARbooks, it turned out, was an imprint of the Florida Literary Foundation; until recently, in fact, it kept the nonprofit house afloat. STARbooks editor Michael Huxley passed Bent's manuscript to FLF marketing and sales director Paul Marquis, who'd come on board in the fall of 2002 with the aim of making the whole enterprise more literary. (STARbooks published its first "literary erotica" collection last year, and one of FLF's next projects is a collection of stories about a woman whose head pops off during sex and rolls out into the street. "It's the adventures of her head," he says.)

Marquis says Silent Partners is exactly the kind of "odd" book he wants the foundation to build a reputation for. Nonetheless, he thought it was risky, and last summer he told Bent that he sometimes asks authors to help subsidize print runs in order to minimize the company's financial risk. FLF would publish the book if Bent could chip in $2,000.

Steinbrecher wouldn't live to enjoy his pet student's success. He died of heart failure last June, at the age of 87. But he was able to help Bent one last time, from beyond the grave: While the bulk of his estate went to his brothers and his caretakers, his will stipulated that Bent could have any books he wanted from the teacher's extensive library. His executor proposed that if Bent found a buyer for all the books, they could split the proceeds. Within a few weeks Bent had liquidated the collection for $4,000, which left him exactly the amount he needed.

Even though he was putting up the money, two editors at FLF refused to read the book because they found the subject matter so offensive. And Corbin Chezner, who copyedited it, didn't like it much at first.

"My initial reaction was that the author was too negative and wordy and that he was offering an intellectual treatise on matters few would find interesting," Chezner wrote after finishing the book. But he came around: "Because I am rather irreverent and distrustful of social institutions myself, my enjoyment increased as the author introduced more characters and situations." Chezner would go on to write the preface.

The book is currently in stock at Unabridged Books, 3251 N. Broadway, and it's been picked up by Ingram, a major distributor, so both chain and independent bookstores should be able to order it easily, should anyone request a copy. Marquis says the subject matter still presents a marketing challenge in 2003, but that FLF is contacting shops all over Chicago and angling to get the author some radio interviews--be they on WBEZ or Howard Stern.

The novel's cover, which features a tasteful black-and-white photo of a cemetery, was provided by a connection from Sonnenschein: Chicago-based designer Sam Silvio, whose sister Nikki used to be a paralegal there. Nikki first read Silent Partners 20 years ago and recently reread it. She says she still likes the book, though her perception of it has changed. "The first time I read it I was much younger and I thought, Oh, cool, right, this is something really different," she says. "But reading it again I took it more seriously than I did the first time. It's a book about someone who can't find meaning in life, so he looks for it in death."

Bent also has his day job to thank for the sole blurb on the book jacket--a single line of praise from king of the legal thriller Scott Turow, a partner at the firm. "This wonderfully eccentric novel is by turns amusing and erotic, and always intriguing," Turow wrote.

Bent didn't really know Turow--they'd occasionally nod at each other in the hallway--but he knocked on his office door anyway. "I said, 'I bet you get inundated with requests to do blurbs,'" he says. "He gestured toward a pile of 500 books, a mountain of literature." Silent Partners apparently made it to the mountaintop: just a week later, Bent had what he'd come for.

Bent's now working on his 13th book, a sort of addendum to The Canterbury Tales called "The Tabard Inn Tales": "The road beckons, but in reverse; let this inspire us to amend our game as well," it begins. "If the trip back is, in some way, a rebuttal to every journey, let each story you now tell address a story already told, but from another vantage. Let a chaste tale provoke an amorous rejoinder, the frivolous lay a dark meditation. What one found simple, another may deem complex."

Bent finally got a few finished copies of Silent Partners on August 28. He'd already planned how he'd celebrate the moment.

Steinbrecher kept his apartment stocked with Kinderwood champagne--the stuff he served to Bent and his wife before they all went out to dinner. Bent received one of the bottles when Steinbrecher's apartment was cleared out.

"I'm going to chill the champagne and offer a little toast to George," he said. "Wherever he may be."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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