Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In 1990, Karen Finley, then a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, enraged powerful cultural conservatives in Washington; now her work has apparently scared off at least one contributor to the venerable voice of the left, The Nation.

Who’s afraid of Karen Finley?

By Jerry Tallmer

What a dump! But this isn’t the circumspect Ivy League living room, late one night, of a professor of English and his rowdy wife. This, as another George and Martha enter for a one-night stand, is a bedroom in a sleazy hotel just off Times Square where through a dirty window you see the neon proclamation: COLOR TV… AIR-CONDITIONED.

“Oh, Martha,” George says – whines, maybe. “It’s not that bad.”

Martha shares her thoughts with us. George always insists everything is nice. He is such a goddam Girl Scout at times.

And with that, from Karen Finley with a bow to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” we’re off to the races. The sexual races. The Freudian races. The political races. The preemptive-war races. Everything except the racial races.

The goddam Girl Scout here—the wimp—is a gentleman named George W. Bush. Yes, that George W. Bush. His lady friend in this hotel room’s king-sized, semen-stained bed is—wait for it!—Martha Stewart, fresh from the hoosegow. These two charmers are brought to us in the 105 pages of “George & Martha,” a book that came out on April 13 (Verso paperback, $15) that’s an outgrowth of Finley’s own shorter, but no less angry, similarly titled satirical play from a couple of years ago.

Albee’s George and Martha harked back, nomenclaturally, to the Father of Our Country and his Missus. So do Finley’s George and Martha, with a difference.

“Enough with your father,” Martha Stewart commands the current president of the United States. “Let’s see how your mother fucked you up. Your mother was the real man in the family. She even looks like George Washington.”

And there’s a little drawing by Karen Finley—one of a hundred or so drawings by her throughout the book, some of them quite provocative—to illustrate the point. Barbara Bush as George Washington.

Sexually provocative, but not, as it happens, anally provocative.

As it further happens, just a month ago Karen Finley was in the Tribeca office of Verso, telling this writer how she in fact feels a bit sorry for the real George W, Bush (“… there’s something pitiful about him; he’s been created, been emasculated”), when a telephone call came saying that an immediately following interview, slated for the Web site of The Nation magazine—that bastion of radical liberalism or liberal radicalism since its founding by Abolitionists in 1865—had been canceled.

Without explanation. Which seemed strange to Finley and her publisher, Verso’s Amy Scholder. When Scholder put through a follow-up call to The Nation, she was, she said, informed by the magazine’s Web editor, Joan Connell, that the freelance journalist who was to do the interview was “offended by the anal sex, and wanted nothing to do with it.” Huh?

“She [Web editor Connell] also said: ‘We [The Nation] could probably run an extract, instead of an interview, but not the sexual parts of the book.’ ”

“I guess my feeling,” Finley said later in the week, “is, first of all… The Nation! It’s like a civil-rights issue. Even it it’s just one journalist, it’s important to look at the intense homophobia of the left.

“I’m reminded of when Pete Hamill, in the Village Voice about 20 years ago, imagined that I had taken an unwashed yam and stuck it in my rear end because of a performance piece of mine called ‘Yams and My Granny’s Ass.’ And Hamill made this projection, this very big leap”—said the handsome, intractable woman who, it must be said, got rather well known in 1990 around the Congress of the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Supreme Court, and elsewhere for coating her naked self, first with chocolate, later with honey, as statements about the situation of women in the modern—or any—world.

A careful scouring of “George & Martha” boils down, in posterior respects, to this: Martha peering with a flashlight as George, on all fours, complains: “Martha, why don’t you stop using my colon for comparison shopping? The problem with you liberal types is that I have bin Laden up my ass and you’re asking why.”

“We did not cancel the Web piece,” said The Nation’s publicity and syndication director Mike Webb. “The writer bowed out of the assignment. This sort of thing happens all the time. When we found out that the writer did not want to do the piece, we offered to excerpt a portion of the book on our Web site. Then we even offered to have someone else interview Karen Finley. Verso never responded to these offers…

“As Verso should have known, the statements of a freelance Web writer do not reflect the views of the magazine. No one on the staff of The Nation is afraid of sex… If Verso ever responds to our offer, we will be happy to post something about ‘George & Martha.’”

He went on to say, by e-mail to this writer: “Listen, I don’t believe in suppressing news, so do what you want with the story. However, if you think it is news (it’s been on the New York Post’s Page Six), I ask would… The Villager force a reporter to do a piece they weren’t comfortable working on?”

Verso publicity director Gavin Browning declared later: “I don’t understand why he says we didn’t respond. We did respond. We offered an extract [from the book]. As of today, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.” The Nation proper, Browning added, “passed on putting it [a piece on Karen Findley and the book] in the print magazine some time ago.”

Stay tuned. Meanwhile:

If Karen Finley—no matter her fury—feels sorry for George W. Bush (“ … his sister died of leukemia when George was eight, his father was absent, Barbara was so sad, George had to become his mother’s companion, her emotional support, he couldn’t even go out to play with his friends, I think that George W. would really like to kill his father, why else would somebody stay so attached to something [Iraq] that doesn’t make sense?”), she feels even sorrier for Martha Stewart.

“She probably has more brains and management facilities than Bush. Coming from an immigrant Polish family, as she did, America only allowed her to make domestic decisions within the home. Do I think she should have gone to jail? No, what a waste. And what she did—isn’t it how all business works?

“Yes, I can cook, though right now I’m into raw food. I do some domestic things [including care of 11-year-old daughter Violet]. I guess I understand the nation’s interest in Martha Stewart—in a world so out of control, at least you can control your [household] environment.”

What about The Nation’s interest in steering clear of the rear?

“What anal sex?” said Karen Finley. And then, with a giggle and a reference to this writer’s career history: “You used to be on Penthouse. Where is the money shot?”

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