By Mark Harris.
243 pages
New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1984.
ISBN # 0-07-026845-2

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2003

Professor/writer Lee Youngdahl is impotent, or at least he believes he is. Others, his friends and family tend to believe his condition is psychological rather than physical and even the medical profession is quite skeptical of his condition.

The 60-year old teacher of writing has tended to define himself in significant measure in terms of his sexual exploits, particularly with promising and beautiful female writing students. This pattern, established over many years, leaves him with a number of female friends who, themselves, are successful authors and still occasional lovers of their beloved professor.

What is even more surprising to Lee, and others, including his wife, is that Mariolena Sunwall, his current beautiful and talented student is NOT his lover. Lee is also deeply troubled by this, and this fact alone convinces him of the seriousness of his condition.

The entire novel is told in a series of letters to and from Lee Youngdahl. The result is a simply rollickingly funny novel, brilliantly written; a page turner with such power than I never wanted to stop reading. What I liked best of all was that much of the humor was linguistic, including the title. Mariolena has written a novel which Professor Lee has read aloud to his class. It is normally the pattern that he reads something of each student’s class writings, but when he begins her “assignment” the class begs for the whole, and the class laughs itself weak as Youngdahl reads aloud.

The key joke of the novel is a sentence: “Earnestly they conversed together as they lied in bed.” At first Youndahl corrected her grammar. She assured him she had said exactly what she meant and the grammar was fine. And so goes the novel.

The plot is further complexified when Lee’s wife Beth leaves for several moths to visit serially their seven children which includes a trip to South American and several U.S. states. This leaves Lee the opportunity to “cure” his impotence with Mariolena, who appears to adore him. But, his perceived impotence keeps him at bay.

The novel is filled with a cast of character that would cure anyone’s inability laugh and could be cited as formal exercises for strengthening one’s sense of humor. The former writing stars of Lee are two, his agent, a crack-pot physician who is keen to cure impotence by penile implants – a permanently “erect rod” which is implanted, and a new-age guru who also will cure anything.

I often read this novel while sitting at a near-by Starbucks and people would constantly come over to ask what in the world I was reading that had me laughing so hard and so loud. I just couldn’t help myself. It is a very funny book.

Another very clever plot device is that it concerns two novels – Mariolena’s and his next novel. Her novel eventually is named, by Lee, with the title of THIS novel, Lying in Bed. It is Lee who suggests this title and the novel itself is about the lives and loves of Mariolena, or at least of the lives and loves she wishes she had had. At the same time he is about to be working on a novel which he will call The Girl on the Diving Board (Mariolena, who moves into Lee and Beth’s guest house while she’s away), and is really THIS novel we are reading. It gets complex.

I recommend this book to all who want a good laugh. Some might be put off by the theme of the professor/student sexual relationships which are at the heart of it, but I think it needs to be read as a novel of the early 1980s when such activity was not as much of a scandal as it tends to be today.

A few of the passages, I liked best to give some flavor of either the raw humor or the clever word games are below:

In one scene he is in his first doctor’s office and is resisting undressing to see the doctor. The nurse suggests it will cost just as much if he undresses (thus allowing the doctor to do a better examination) than if he does nor. He assures the nurse he is not concerned with cost, and then he thinks of the cost of his philandering:

"I'm not really thinking about cost," I told the nurse. If I were thinking about cost I’d stay impotent. Think of the thousands and thousands of dollars I have spent on women! Think of the time I've spent on women! If I had devoted to writing the time I have devoted to chasing women around five of the seven continents I’d have written two more books, one hundred more stories, and one thousand sonnets. How much food and beverage have I bought for women? How many telephone calls have I placed to women in all corners of the universe? How many letters have I written to women around the globe, each letter post-paid in full so it wouldn't bounce back? (Even then, some came back, arousing Beth's anger.) How many fine gifts have I bought for how many fine women?”

In another place we read:

“Indeed, did I not read all the time in the Ogden newspaper that this man or that was arrested for exposure. You ever heard of a woman arrested for “indecent exposure.”?

The concept of “visual friends” was a clever piece of language and analysis I liked:

“… Dave Kendall, who has had a locker next to mine for years. We are not good friends. Not enemies. Just visual friends. When I see him there he is. When I don’t see him he’s nowhere.”

Very early on in the novel there is a scene where he takes Mariolena out to lunch. Her small son knocks over glass of red wine onto the lovely white table cloth at a fancy restaurant. Lee prided himself in his quick urbane reply: “I should have ordered white wine.” Lee has told the story to many friends. Later Mariolena meets them in New York and she tells the story as evidence of Lee’s sophisticated ways. The reply of one of Lee’s friends was just so great:

(From Mariolena’s letter to Lee about the New York visit) “I told them of our first lunch together, when the wine spilled, and your sophisticated way of managing the incident. Dorothy said of you: ‘Yes, he will have appeared to be been uniquely sophisticated.’ I thought that that itself was uniquely sophisticated.”

Lee’s crazy agent provides my last sample:

“I don't know anything about impotence except what I hear from various men. Nobody gives it a thought until they've got it which is the way with most diseases. But I'll keep inquiring. l am told that a sure cure for impotence is smoking marijuana, but I’m not speaking first hand. While everybody in New York was smoking marijuana I took the opportunity of staying sober and making my fortune.

If you don't mind a bit of personal opinion I always believed the chief cause of impotence was bicycle riding. I never rode one myself and was never impotent. You on the other hand are an incredible bicycle freak. You are the only man that ever met me at the airport on a bicycle. Out of my window I see these I enthusiastic young males racing along on their bicycles, and as I watch them I can feel a severe pain creeping up on my testicles. When I see them bumping over the curb I wince. It shivers my timbers. The bicycle seat is a lethal dagger. One false move and your testicles are rolling down the street like marbles. Take a vacation from bicycle riding and see if it helps. This is the best advice can give you.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett