Iguana Love by Vicki Hendricks

Serpent's Tail 1999 185 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


In that parallel universe known as noir, a world of heated bodies, doubled indemnities, and ringing postmen, Vicki Hendricks has staked her claim-with a speargun. The Hollywood, Florida resident's first novel, [beginital] Miami Purity [endital], established her as a fearless explorer of the darker side of the female heart. Her sophomore outing, Iguana Love, is an equally outrageous portrait of a woman at the mercy of sexual passions she can barely control.

Ramona Romano is bored with married life in Miami, hoping for a dramatic change. Her mother knows what she needs: "a hardworking husband without tattoos." But Gary's just not enough. Leaving him in front of the television one night, she hightails it over to Biscayne Bay to Seabirds, a local bar frequented by divers. Once there, she's confused about what she wants: Enzo, "the dark circling shadow" in her mind? Charley, "thin and sinewy as a Cousteau?" Or maybe Dennis, "an enormous, dark, bodybuilder?"

It soon becomes clear that Mona (love that name) won't rest until she's had them all, and a few more besides. The ensuing complications, which range from juggling dates, to decapitated snakes, to being left for dead in the Atlantic Ocean, are all propelled by Mona's insatiable desire. And there's that iguana, one strangely attractive lizard among so many, many more.

Hendricks' technical trick is to switch the sex of the noir hero. Mona possesses the rare freedom of looking at men as promising hunks of sexual capital. In her focused and practiced gaze, the males within her vision resolve themselves into a swirl of tight rumps, tapered torsos, and curly hair that disappears up their thighs into the steamy promise of their shorts. Antimatter such as Alan Alda, coming into contact with this world, would simply and instantaneously disappear.

A classic noir hero(ine), she confesses late in the book about her conquest: "I couldn't deny that our relationship was pathological. My autonomy was shot. But I didn't care. . . . I hated him and his power over me, yet I admired and worshipped every monstrous, evil molecule of him."

Despite the ongoing sexual gymnastics, this book is principally about female desire, an unabashed account not of arousal, but of the erotics of arousing others. Mona finds what is most desirable in men is their desire for her, and the more men she can simultaneously interest, the more arousing she finds it.

Hendricks is onto something here, because as an author, like her heroine, she wants to have it both ways: feminist in her frankness about Mona's desires, yet traditionally masculine in her concern with the body of the desired object.

Had a man written about women this way (and of course they have and do), he'd be accused of objectifying women. One part James M. Cain and one part Mickey Spillane, Hendricks' prose comes across as a studied gender reversal, or as a slightly silly and guilty pleasure for women who appreciate men for their physical qualities. A man this sexualized would be denounced as a predator. Ms. Hendricks wants us to take Mona a bit differently, as a woman who knows her pleasures and takes them where she can.

What's ultimately most striking about Mona's psychology is that her responses to the male body seem to be less female and more those of a gay man. I can imagine that if she keeps writing this way she will become the queen of a small but avid coterie of men who love men, who just can't get enough of her Female Gaze.

Unfortunately for all of us, Babs Stanwyck isn't around to play Ramona in the movie version. Picture Gretchen Mol, glistening in a South Florida sweat, licking her pouty lips, having a little trouble with that clingy halter top, surveying the divers in the bar. The only thing she can't control in the bar is herself. Who'll it be tonight?