When the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes began his new book, he kept its subject a secret. He sought no approval from his publisher, Simon & Schuster, or his editor, Michael Korda. He took no cash advance. When Rhodes handed in his manuscript, ”it was received with shock and uncertainty about what it might do to my career,” he says. ”After all, it is very personal.”
That may be the understatement of the literary season. Though Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey weighs in at a slender 175 pages and comes in a plain brown wrapper (actually, a plain beige jacket), it’s quite a handful: Its pages describe Rhodes’ deflowering at age 18 courtesy of a prostitute, the sizes, shapes, and sounds of the 10 sex partners he has had in the 37 years since then, his fondness for marathon masturbation sessions, his passion for porn, his lifelong attempts to discover orgasm-extending techniques, and an array of other matters oral and manual, practical and theoretical, blunt and blush-inducingly explicit, all part of Rhodes’ unblinking sexual self-revelation. ”This is terra incognita,” admits the 55-year-old author. ”It’s an account of sexuality that isn’t disguised as fiction — an extended exploration of what it means to be a human animal.”
It’s also a remarkable risk for a writer whose reputation as a thoughtful social historian has until now been untarnished by bad reviews. Critics cheered Rhodes’ history The Making of the Atomic Bomb (for which he won a 1988 Pulitzer and a National Book Award) and his 1989 heartland study, Farm. When he first turned his gaze inward in 1990, the result was A Hole in the World, an emotional recollection of his life as an abused child that drew raves. Notices for Making Love, however, have ranged from calm to caustic. Fiercest of all was novelist Martin Amis, who, in The New York Times Book Review, called the book ”a cataract of embarrassment” by ”a sex-on-the-brain merchant.” (”That giggleheaded English twit,” responds Rhodes, with more mildness than rancor.)
Though Rhodes had already explored sexual storytelling in a novel as well as two sex manuals he edited in the 1980s, he wasn’t ready to write Making Love until he revealed the horror story contained within A Hole in the World. After Rhodes’ mother killed herself when he was an infant, his father, a railroad mechanic, struggled through the Depression, bringing up Rhodes and his older brother, Stanley, in poverty in Kansas City, Mo. Eventually, Rhodes’ father married a woman who brutalized and starved the boys until their victimization became so apparent that a judge removed them to a boys’ home. Even decades later, exposing his scarred upbringing in A Hole in the World took its toll. ”There was nothing more painful to report than that I had peed in jars when I was 10 years old (and forbidden by his stepmother to use the bathroom at night),” says Rhodes. ”Nothing in Making Love was as embarrassing for me as that, and most of it is joyous.” Rhodes views Making Love as an exploration of his struggle to reclaim his body after those early years of abuse. ”I’ve seen lots of recovery manuals, but never one that talked about sexuality as one source of recovery,” he says.
Nonetheless, Rhodes and his companion, 37-year-old radio producer Ginger Untrif, identified only as G— in the book, realized that ”some of it would be uncomfortable” to make public, particularly the graphic descriptions of the couple’s battles (since resolved) over how much sex was too much. ”There was a point,” Rhodes says, ”when I was pushing Ginger beyond where she wanted to go in terms of stimulation. I wanted to know what the ceiling was.” Before it was published, Rhodes sent Making Love to some friends — writer Gay Talese and agent Lynn Nesbit among them — and his daughter, Katherine, a 28-year-old biologist. Fortified by their encouragement, he awaited the book’s release. ”Ginger was interested to see how men we knew would react,” says Rhodes. ”Would they try to come on to her? Would they feel protective of her? There’s been a curious response from our friends, a kind of increased gentleness. People seem very warm, really.” Not that there haven’t been embarrassing moments. ”One of the funniest things is to be at lunch with someone who has read the book, and to have them say not one word about it,” Rhodes says, laughing. ”I mean, what do you say — ‘I enjoyed reading about your orgasms’?”
Rhodes may be able to avoid those awkward encounters in the immediate future. Though he says he may return to the literary bedroom (”A book on sexuality and aging would be interesting”), his next book, The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, will probably keep him occupied until 1995. He’s also adapting A Hole in the World as a film for Oliver Stone; Sally Field will play his stepmother. ”I’ve done a lot of thinking about the wide-scale human violence that has marked our century,” he says, ”whether nuclear warfare or child abuse. What seems clear is that it grows from viewing a group of people as less than human. Making Love is part of that work. I’d like men who read it to think about how thoughtless and indifferent they are to women sexually. I’ve never spoken to a woman who didn’t have that story to tell. Although,” he amends with a smile, ”I don’t mean myself as an example.”