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Naughty or Nice: A Holiday Novel
Eric Jerome Dickey
New York: Dutton, 2003.
$17.95, 275 pages, 0-525-94776-0.

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago

Dear Lord, thank you for this food we’re about to receive.
I pray for wisdom to understand men. Love to forgive them for being
assholes. Patience for their moods. Because, Lord, if I pray for strength,
the way I’m feeling, I’ll beat one to death. Amen. [p. 106]

For a little over ten years, an upheaval of sorts has occurred in African-American fiction. Previously, the notion of the Talented Tenth reigned supreme in this genre; that is, the idea that only novels that uplifted the race should be written and/or read. One of the most memorable examples of this ideology is cultural critic and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’s response to Claude McKay’s realist novel Home to Harlem (1927). As retold in The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, DuBois observed: “[the novel] for the most part nauseates me, and after [reading] the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath” [p. 983]. Such thinking retained a virtual stranglehold on the reading habits of African-American consciousness for a very long time. It is partially due to this perspective that African-American authors such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison (and to a lesser extent Alice Walker) found their place in the larger literary canon. Although the stories these latter authors depict are not uncontested ones, they do not, supposedly, contain any traces of the “filth” that perturbed DuBois and those of his ilk.

In the early to mid 1990s, authors E. Lynn Harris, Omar Tyree and Eric Jerome Dickey, amongst others, began publishing novels that chronicled a less-sanitized world of African-Americans. In style and content, this world has much more in common with McKay than with Ellison, Morrison et al. Although there had been recent instantiations of this type of writing—Terry McMillan is one example—these three (male) authors struck a particular chord amongst African-American readers, resulting in immense commercial success (E. Lynn Harris is now the best-selling African-American author of all time). The style of writing these three authors are famous for is best described as the contemporary “relationship novel,” works that explore the ostensibly complex relationship between the sexes.

Naughty or Nice is the most recent relationship novel from Dickey. This is his ninth novel and, at a mere $17.95 for a hardback, it is priced to move. The work is undeniably similar to Terry McMillan’s wildly popular Waiting to Exhale, particularly in terms of temporal setting (the Christmas holidays) and the foregrounding of women’s trials and tribulations. As in Waiting to Exhale, the women in Naughty or Nice are miffed by their failed (and numerous) attempts to find “good” men: the kind that have “good” jobs, “good” credit, and the ability to “fuck” expertly. The plot of the novel (and I use the word “plot” very liberally) involves the three McBroom sisters: Olivia (Livvy), Tommie, and Frankie. The reader is treated to details of Livvy’s retaliatory affair with a married man, Tommie’s timid affair with an older man, and Frankie’s attempts to engage in a torrid affair with any man. As the novel proceeds, Livvy becomes more and more attached to her married man, Tommie becomes more and more attached to her older man, and Frankie becomes more and more determined to find any man. Drama ensues and is, not unexpectedly, resolved in time for the New Year.

The novel is replete with numerous African-American cultural touchstones, e.g. when Dickey writes, “Nat King Cole’s classic holiday offering goes off as En Vogue comes on singing a funkdafied version of ‘Silent Night’” [p. 51]. The reader should know that Dickey is referring to Cole’s chestnut, “The Christmas Song,” a veritable staple on black radio during the holiday season. A similar instance occurs later when Livvy dances with her married man: “[“]Atomic Dog[“] came on and the room went wild, sent the house into freak-me mode” [p. 85]. In order to appreciate the reference, the reader must know that George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is a quintessential funk classic. Another touchstone occurs when Frankie encounters a cousin, Ray Ray, in a shopping mall parking lot. After asking where the recently-paroled Ray Ray’s children are, he replies, “Hennessy and Alize are staying with me. They’re getting big” [p. 135]. The reader should recognize this as a riff on the increasing inclination by blacks to name their offspring after commercial products, in this case, popular brands of alcoholic beverages. Alas, Dickey failed to place the accent on Alizé, so the unschooled reader might think the child’s name is pronounced “A-leez” instead of “A-liz-ay.” A similar gaffe occurs in the numerous instances throughout the novel where Dickey has one of his characters utter the phrase “off the chains.” The correct expression, which implies something is good, is “off the chain.”

For better or worse, black female sassiness abounds in Naughty or Nice: “I had to call the paramedics because I had shoved my chubby foot so far up his narrow butt he had to get an ass-ectomy in order to get my three-inch pump surgically removed” [pp. 22-23) and “Willie [sic] Wonka wouldn’t be getting into this chocolate factory” [p. 24], a coded way of emphasizing that white men need not apply. These statements—and there are many more—are sure to appeal to those black readers who appreciate such clever turns of phrases. Unfortunately, there is some confusion with regard to who is the commentator in the chapter headings, some of which come with a rhetorical flourish, e.g. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Learned that in physics, the day I was paying attention” [p. 1]; “Pleasure Principle. The theory, not the [Janet Jackson] song” [p. 187]; “For every reaction, there is an overreaction. Read dat somewhere” [p. 209]. The reader wonders: is this one of the sisters speaking or is this an example of Dickey’s authorial sass? Moreover, if this is Dickey, why is he inserting himself so forcefully into the narrative?

What concerns this reader the most about the novel is the way “other” subjectivities are depicted in the narrative. Most of the novel’s characters are black. There is, however, a sequence wherein the three McBroom sisters visit a karaoke club and encounter a woman of Asian descent. As Livvy describes this occurrence:

We had gotten up and turned the house out McBroom style […] Then this Korean girl started howling [“]YMCA[“]. She was dressed like Britney Spears, had on over-the-top Cleopatra makeup and when she started doing the letters […] she was so small and perky […] she was so hilarious. I didn’t mean to laugh at her, but I couldn’t help it. We were red in the face and dying. The poor girl couldn’t say the letter L, so all of her Ls sounded like Rs. “I rub you, baby, I rub you.” The song ended and Miss Perky threw on a wide grin and took a bow fit for Broadway. “Now I will sing a Ricky Martin song […] Riving Ra Vida Roca”. [pp. 211-212]

In addition to the fact that this sequence is just not funny, the ethnocentrism is alarming. Since the action in the text occurs in Los Angeles, the reader imagines that the McBroom sisters would have encountered countless people of Asian descent and would be less inclined towards ridiculing their speech patterns. Later in the novel, the bonds of sisterhood conveniently trump sociolinguistics when an Asian cop, as she is described, pulls Livvy over for speeding and littering. After seeing Livvy’s distraught nature—brought on by a man who had done her wrong—the police officer lets her go with merely a (well-articulated) warning [p. 231]. The reader half expects the cop to give Livvy a high-five and a hearty “You go girl!”.

The disparity between the portrayal of male and female non-normative sexualities is similarly disturbing. Gay and bisexual men in Naughty or Nice are to be ridiculed. Bisexual women, on the other hand, are to be revered (it is telling that there are no lesbians present or mentioned in the novel. A woman who makes the conscious decision not to have any man in her life evidently cannot exist in Dickey’s universe). During one of her endless attempts to find Mr. Right, Frankie comes in contact with a gay man passing for straight. In an over-the-top scene involving this man’s jealous partner, Frankie asserts, “knew you were too pretty […] dressed too damn nice,” the implication being that “real” men must dress like thugs and have a few battle scars and/or gunshot wounds [p. 141]. Shortly thereafter, Frankie describes the scene to Tommie who responds, “you saw [him] crying out on the curb like a three-year-old?,” the insinuation being that gay men are perpetually weak and effeminate [p. 142]. This characterization of gay men as weak is in marked contrast to the novel’s bisexual female character whose name alone, Panther, implies her strength and vitality. Readers expecting more than a one-dimensional portrayal of non-normative sexualities will be sorely disappointed.

The novel concludes with an excessive five pages of acknowledgments, most of which takes the form of a primer on how to write: “There are no secrets. Just hard work. A lot of falling and getting back up. If you love writing, that’s what you’ll do” [p. 272]. Very original, erudite stuff here. What is notable is Dickey’s encouraging tone to budding writers; his cheerleading for more people to produce books like his. It is almost as if he perceives himself as a modern-day William Shakespeare or Anthony Trollope, writing the kinds of works that reveal the “true nature” of men and women. The problem, as I see it, is that Naughty or Nice does not seem designed to have the longevity of Shakespeare and Trollope (or, for that matter, McKay). The novel feels rushed, dashed off in an attempt to satiate Dickey’s bank account.

Ultimately, with its reinforcement of overly-dependent women, stereotypical portrayal of gay men and racial “others,” and predictable plot, Naughty or Nice is an exercise in tedium. This type of fiction almost makes one long for the ideology of the Talented Tenth. Almost.


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