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PG Columnists

NEA foes miss boat on satire

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Robert Clark Young earned a $50,000 advance from HarperCollins to write "One of the Guys," an arresting if luridly satirical novel about life aboard Navy ships roaming the Pacific. But it was that one penny from every 7,000th American that provided him, and us, with an equally arresting primer on modern cultural politics.

That one penny from every 7,000th American is what Young calculates he got from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Ohio Arts Council when he was teaching at Hocking College and struggling to launch "One of the Guys." Young never would have bothered to do the math had not his book, bearing the implicit NEA seal of approval, become another pinata for conservative clubbers everywhere.

"I've read some highly descriptive passages," said Allen Wildmon on the telephone from Tupelo, Miss., home base of the American Family Association, which held Young's book up to Congress as steaming evidence against further NEA funding.

"This gentleman has every right to write any type of book that he wants to write. We certainly wouldn't attempt to take his rights away. All we're saying is that the public shouldn't be forced to pay for it. It's another example of the lack of control we have over the ways our dollars are spent. All of these NEA reforms over the years, once they pass it down to the state councils on the arts, you can throw those regulations out the window."

That may well be true, since there are federal regulations stating that "obscenity is without artistic merit, is not protected speech, and shall not be funded" and because the Ohio Arts Council presumably had a window and a member who could throw. Further, there are in "One of the Guys" highly descriptive passages, lowly descriptive passages and passages I can't even depict without my own NEA grant.

The novel starts with a priest dropping dead during a homosexual encounter in an adult video arcade. Then it starts to heat up.

Soon enough, we're panting ashore with the fleet for jaunts through the strip clubs and massage parlors of the Philippines, Thailand and other ports o' call. But it is here where the argument changes, and it pivots on this inconvenient little point:

"Everything in that book, I've seen with my own eyes," said Young, who taught college courses as a civilian on Navy ships, the springboard for his novel. "The exaggerations are few. The purpose of satire is to exaggerate in order to point out some things, but with the Navy, I didn't have to exaggerate.

"I had some hope of shedding some light on the fact that the Navy does a lot of things overseas that the public just doesn't know about."

Young's been writing fiction since he was 13, the spark of an intense love of the craft he pursued through four universities and to six continents. Had he written this book merely to provide a play-by-play (by-play-by-play-by-play-by-play) of our servicemen's adventures at liberty, the bleatings of the AFA, which has called the book "garbage," might have some resonance. But "One of the Guys" is more the byproduct of outrage than of titillation. Young was stunned by what he saw, probably more so than the self-appointed moralists by the parts they read.

"The scene that has generated the most controversy, wherein an underage Filipino girl [I'm not even going to try to get the verb, its direct object or the modifying prepositional phrase in the paper] to entertain U.S. sailors is an actual stage show that our servicemen often view in Manila," Young said. "I strongly oppose such 'entertainment' and wrote about it to criticize this injustice against Asian child prostitutes. The Navy forbids personnel on overseas liberty from frequenting gay clubs and will drum a sailor out of the service merely for being gay, yet the Navy does not forbid its personnel from frequenting clubs where child prostitution and other forms of exploitative 'entertainment' occur.

"The American Family Association is not criticizing the U.S. military for these practices, nor calling for a reduction in the military budget," Young said.

Despite its evident heat, this book literally, metaphorically and effectively asks the question, "How many times does the soul of a 13-year-old girl have to be destroyed for $7?" All the NEA and its Ohio conduit did in this case was help a free society take a hard look at one of its dark aspects. At a penny for every 7,000 of us, it was a bargain.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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