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Sex is never simple; that’s why we have writers

FICTION

Scary Old Sex: Stories

By Arlene Heyman

Bloomsbury

228 pages, $26

I’m Glad About You

By Theresa Rebeck

Putnam

372 pages, $27

By Karen Brady

Sex – geriatric and otherwise – is the magic that drives two savvy new books, one a collection of stories by septuagenarian psychiatrist Arlene Heyman, the other a novel by seasoned playwright Theresa Rebeck.

Both are witty, layered and often profound, with Heyman’s “Scary Old Sex” the richer of the two – with Rebeck’s not far behind, hers an exploration of the sometimes hilarious, other times disastrous, repercussions of unconsummated young love.

But it is Heyman’s stories that are not only unforgettable but sophisticated, and edgy, starting with “The Loves of Her Life” in which 65-year-old Marianne is preparing to have sex with her 70-year-old spouse, Stu, a feat that can no longer be achieved with spontaneity:

“… (F)or them, making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously, there was no room for maverick actions lest the country end up defeated and at each other’s throats …”

Soon, Marianne’s thoughts turn to her “eternally summery image of her marriage to David,” (who had died suddenly and in his prime), then go on to Billy, her son, now grown but once a boy, with flaxen curls. Only age could pull the three men together in this sensual way, a fact far from lost on Heyman’s Marianne – who, awake, is glad to see Billy shed Lyria, the “flailing chaotic woman” he married, and, asleep, is pulled into what can only be called reverse-Oedipal dreams.

But if sex is overt here, it is subtler in such stories as “Dancing,” a 9/11 piece for all time, as a boy named Solly sits in calculus class as the first plane hits the World Trade Center, just blocks away. Solly sees, out the window, “an immense fireball two thirds of the way up the North Tower … red and orange flames bursting out of the building, out of some kind of huge living hole … It is startling and horrifying and beautiful …”

It is beyond overload for Solly, whose father, Matt, is gravely ill in an uptown hospital – a fact that makes this powerful piece one of unfathomable loss within unfathomable loss. Heyman reportedly spent years perfecting these poignant yet often wry stories.

“At the Happy Isles,” another highlight of her collection, features the long-suffering Marilyn who, at 68, is the daughter of the vain and domineering 99-year-old Gussie – a woman Marilyn always believed “would never die – and it was turning out to be the case.”

This is a tale reminiscent of Muriel Spark’s now-classic “Memento Mori,” with Gussie ensconced in an assisted-living facility called Happy Isles (a place largely populated by women with “a few men sprinkled around like pepper on a salad”).

Heyman, with the canny eyes and ears of the psychiatrist that she is, brings us two equally yet oppositely matched women here, the pair locked in a lifelong love-hate duel that, despite the odds, may never end.

In “Night Call,” she gives us the account of a pediatrician called in the wee hours to his father’s bedside – in the home of a longtime mistress no one save the father knew about. How quickly we see the pediatrician/son determine not only that his father is dead but, in a burst of derring do, decide that the body must be moved, to protect his mother’s, and therefore his own name …

“In Love with Murray,” still another Heyman plum, showcases a young artist who falls for a married, 51-year-old art icon who already “had liver spots on his hands, and was growing ever more orderly.” That the young artist is named Leda only adds to the Heyman charm here – and brings to mind Rebeck’s novel with its budding actress, Alison, who views sleeping with the much-older movie director, Lars, as just a step up the ladder to fame.

Yet at what price, and is it fair to smile nearly every step of Alison’s rocky way? It is! In fact, Rebeck leaves us no choice, the playwright in her giving us characters so real they stand up and not only walk right off the page but head directly for trouble, usually the kind that only sex can bring.

“I’m Glad About You” doesn’t start with sex, however – it starts with the lack of it: Alison and her first love, Kyle, after years of never going “all the way,” are living in different cities, he now a pediatric resident in their hometown of Cincinnati, she trying to break into acting in New York City.

What stands between them, besides distance, is Kyle’s steadfast Roman Catholic belief that “sex is a sacrament, which belongs in marriage” – plus Kyle’s longtime dream of working with war refugees in South America (hardly a place for an aspiring actress).

Rebeck handles both ideals with the same irreverence she gives to just about everything in this quick-paced tale which takes on, along with the tug between the secular and the religious, the differences between life in the Midwest and on the East and West coasts, and, as Alison begins to make her way to the top, the chasm between the illusion and the actuality of fame.

“Everybody had so many agendas running,” Alison realizes at one point, “you couldn’t make head or tails out of what was going on in anybody’s brain unless you put it all down to just constant power plays …”

Dialogue is sharp here, a reflection of Rebeck’s dramatic sensibilities, and one dinner party – thrown by Kyle’s fetching if clueless rebound wife, Van – rises to the level of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

As the evening begins, Rebeck writes, in stage-direction prose: “Kyle’s wife seemed to float. She was gliding around the glorious open kitchen, a kid on one hip, pushing a perfect wisp of a blonde curl off her forehead, turning with a faint look of confusion and then smiling, welcoming, couldn’t be happier to see Kyle’s ex in her fantastic home. Wow, Alison thought. She’s like a painting.”

Dialogue suddenly becomes table tennis with words flying from Alison to Kyle, Kyle to Alison, their mutual disillusionment with what each has become palpable, searing and at the point of no return.

“Why had they given up everything for so little?” thinks Kyle. “And if they were going to give up their dreams anyway, why not give them up for each other?”

Rebeck teases here, nearly giving answers, then sidestepping the action, occasionally for too long – but always delivering in the end.

There are a number of theatrical twists and turns in “I’m Glad About You” (the showbiz title is supposedly Navajo for “I love you”) – and a recurring yin/yang theme involving Thomas Merton, the mystic and monk who, in Kyle’s admiring words, “couldn’t decide between a life of prayerful seclusion or a life in the world” but who “found a way to straddle two identities.”

What of Alison and Kyle in terms of life’s meaning? The question matters but is fleeting: “Blessedly the door opened behind them; another guest arrived, and another. The blanket of civility descended. It was a dinner party! No one had to account for their souls.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.