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BOOK REVIEW

‘Smut’ by Alan Bennett

ALEX BAILEY/HISTORY BOYS LIMITED

Alan Bennett wrote “The Madness of King George’’ and “The History Boys.’’

In August, Nicholson Baker blurted out a new book, “House of Holes,’’ his adolescent-like narrative of the sexual escapades of several one-dimensional characters frolicking through an extended dirty joke that might’ve aptly been titled “Smut.’’

“Smut,’’ though, happens to be the new book by British writer Alan Bennett. If Baker’s sense of humor in “House’’ is unrestrained, and ahem, smutty, Bennett’s is subtle and often wry, full of clever word play, innuendo, and decidedly British. Oh, and there are naughty bits, too.

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You might recognize Bennett as the screenwriter of “The Madness of King George’’ and “The History Boys,’’ which he adapted from his own plays. He’s had a hand in several other movies, stage plays, television shows, and written several books, including short stories, memoirs, and other nonfiction.

SMUT

Author:
Alan Bennett
Publisher:
Picador
Number of pages:
152 pp.
Book price:
$14

His new book, a satire, comprises two long short stories, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson’’ and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,’’ in which characters play roles and never really are who they seem to be.

Mrs. Donaldson, a 55-year-old widow, works as a Simulated Patient, a kind of living practice dummy for medical students. Besides portraying patients with everyday maladies, she’s played the part of depressed daughter of a patient, stroke victim, and male patient in drag with a bad knee. To supplement her meager income, Mrs. Donaldson takes in students as boarders. She soon finds herself role-playing at home as well as work. Her first boarders, Andy and Laura, offer to do a sex demonstration in lieu of three weeks rent. So, “not unlike a tennis umpire overseeing a particularly close-fought match,’’ she watches them make love. Watching them brings back a memory for her of a vase in a British museum; and the “[o]ther things Andy was doing had not even been in the British Museum.’’ Quite the switcheroo from sex with her husband. New “boarders’’ come and go. Mrs. Donaldson embraces her secret new voyeuristic life - which isn’t all that secret - but wonders what sort of person she really is, and she enjoys quite a little romp finding out.

In “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,’’ snobby Mrs. Forbes regrets giving her son Graham such an ordinary name. He’s stylish, good looking, and to Mrs. Forbes’s mortification, he’s marrying below his station. His betrothed is plain Betty Green, who might even be Jewish. Or, she could be Catholic, her husband says, sticking up for the girl. He says her name is Greene, like the novelist, and the “e’’ is silent: He was “understandably sensitive to this spelling, being something of a silent he himself.’’ Mrs. Forbes also mistakenly judges from the way Betty dresses that she has little money and scoffs when Mr. Forbes suggests they could be marrying for love. Mr. Forbes doesn’t approve of the marriage, but for a different reason than his wife’s: “Graham married would leave his father in entirely undiluted company of his mother, a prospect he dreaded.’’ Betty, of course, likes Mr. Forbes, but not his wife.

Graham and Betty play the roles of dutiful, prospective husband and wife. But before long, complications arise - Graham has a gay lover, who masquerades as an ordinary laborer and gay hooker, but claims to be an undercover cop. Meanwhile Mr. Forbes flirts on the Internet with his supposedly Samoan friend. Dual and sometimes triple roles involving blackmail, sex, and narcissism all transpire under befuddled Mrs. Forbes’s nose.

The whole of Baker’s “House’’ of crude vignettes evolves into little more than its individual raunchy parts, and offers only a turn-on that you’re ready to turn off halfway through. But Bennett’s two novellas are cleverly plotted, and his major characters multidimensional. Bennett’s wordplay is genuinely funny most of the time, while Baker’s is akin to what the average male high schooler might concoct in the locker room. Leaving a lot more to the imagination than “House,’’ “Smut’’ takes a grown-up and satiric look at how we play roles, and is more cerebral, and ultimately more successful.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.

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