If there were a popular slick magazine for the over-sixty crowd, a kind of Modern Maturity Mademoiselle, then most of the stories in Sallie Bingham’s new book would have originally been published there.
Bingham has been around a while, but has never risen above formulaic fiction. One of her first stories (which originally appeared in Mademoiselle), inexplicably chosen for the 1959 Best American Short Stories collection, focused teasingly on undergraduate sex. Now that Bingham is in her late sixties, her characters still seem primarily libido driven.
“Apricots,” is typical. A sixty-three-year-old part-time English professor asks one of her male students to help her put up some apricot jam. When they slip into their mouths the succulent fruit, which embarrassingly looks like “a naked part of a person that would ordinarily be hidden,” one seductive thing leads to an unlikely other. Even harder to accept is “Benjamin,” about a cantankerous, egotistical, sexist, and randy ninety-year-old “great artist,” who, in a most improbable bit of wish fulfillment, ends up in bed with a sweet young thing.
The only story with any potential for genuine human complexity, but which is also spoiled by Bingham’s easy, cliche-ridden prose, is “The Splinter,” which focuses on a woman who has a splinter buried in a sole thickened by years of “skipping, hopping, jumping and dancing well into her eightieth year.” At least the young man in this story is gay, thus eliminating the danger of another fantasy- filled sexual encounter when, predictably, he probes the splinter out.
It is certainly not impossible to write beautiful, convincing stories about love and sex after the age of sixty; many other writers have done it quite well. Folks past their prime deserve better treatment than that given them by Sallie Bingham in these simplistic, slick-mag stories.