MAXWELL:  Watch what you read

3/29/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Let’s eavesdrop on a bit of a couple’s conversation:

“What are you wearing?” he asked.

She said, “I’m wearing a white shirt with little stars, green and black stars, on it, and black pants, and socks the color of the green stars, and a pair of black sneakers I got for nine dollars.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m lying on my bed, which is made. That’s an unusual thing. I made my bed this morning.”

Here’s another snippet of this increasingly suggestive tete-a-tete. The woman speaks first:

“What hand are you holding the phone with?”

“My left,” he said.

“What are you doing with your right hand?”

“My right hand is, at the moment, my fingers are resting in the soil of a potted plant somebody gave me, that isn’t doing too well. I’m sort of moving my fingers in the soil.”

And so it goes. Well, not quite.

The truth is that most of the conversation is so pornographic that I cannot not quote 75 percent of it in this family newspaper. This conversation is “telephone sex,” the raison d’etre for Vox, Nicholson Baker’s 1992 best-selling novel.

Nearly six years after its titillation appeal has become pretty much passe, Vox has been resuscitated, thanks to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor investigating alleged sexual misconduct, in the Oval Office between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The Washington Post reported recently that Starr has subpoenaed the records of a Washington bookstore in search of the titles of books that Lewinsky purchased there. Starr, the president’s silk-suited nemesis, obviously believes that Vox may lead him to a smoking gun of sorts.

Has he finally lost his mind?

Not exactly. He is apparently trying to corroborate Lewinsky’s alleged claim to Linda Tripp that she and the president regularly engaged in telephone sex.

Eureka! Vox!

If Lewinsky and Clinton did have telephone sex like that in the novel, the First Illicit Couple had one hot and heavy relationship, let me assure you.

Sorry, I cannot quote from the book.

At any rate, Starr is hoping to find a pattern, albeit far-fetched, in an electronic (telephone) and linguistic (novel) universe where simulation and imagination are proxy for the real thing, as it were.

Do not ask. I cannot quote from the book.

Instead of further implicating the president, however, Vox may show that Lewinsky made up the telephone sex story after reading the book. I am willing to bet right now that that is what happened. Sure, records show that she and Clinton probably talked. They may have exchanged a few sweet nothings, too. But time may show that what Tripp spilled her guts about was essentially the creative efforts of Nicholson Baker, who was happily married in upstate New York when the book was published.

Do not think for a moment that the legal profession is not paying close attention to Starr’s Vox faux pas. The lawyer for the bookstore owners in question, for example, told the New York Times that his clients are caught in “the cross hairs of a special prosecutor.”

Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, is said to want to do Starr bodily harm. “Mr. Starr has sunk to a new low,” Ginsburg said during a televised news conference. “He is truly an agent of government who is out of control.”

Civil libertarians and others who care about First Amendment freedoms are outraged at Starr’s subpoena. “People in this country ought to have the right to buy books without government scrutiny,” said Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Indeed, millions of Americans would be in deep do-do if Starr concocted a reason to subpoena records of their book purchases.

Hell, I would be locked up for life if he came after my receipts. Not only do I have Vox (I enjoyed it), but I have bought and read smutty tomes such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Quiet Days in Clichy and William Burroughs’ Junky, Naked Lunch and Queer. My vast, wonderful collection of steamy novels written by black women for black women is a treasure trove that is growing.

What would the special prosecutor do if he knew that I also have classics such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill and Tom Jones and modern greats such as The Color Purple, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Portnoy’s Complaint?

Thank goodness I was not Lewinsky’s English professor when I lived in California, which would mean that I would have come in contact with her _ at least through the printed word. This fact alone means that Starr would have cause to ransack my beloved private library.

What about the typical private library in America? Could it pass a Ken Starr obscenity test? My advice is that if you have Vox and have talked a bit dirty on the telephone since reading the book, burn the receipt.

Better yet, burn the book.

And, please, watch your telephone conversations, especially with your lovers. They may be taping you. If they become famous one day, those tapes may prove to be your undoing.

By the way, according to Cassell’s Concise Latin Dictionary, “vox” means “voice, cry, call; accent, language; sound, tone; a saying, utterance.”