Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way was originally published in 1970 but is set in 1954, and it’s hard to imagine a 16-year stretch in American history when things changed more. 1970: The nation on fire, Vietnam raging, and the Sexual Revolution well into its swinging heyday. 1954: Eisenhower in the White House, Civil Rights only a whisper, and relationships between the sexes still trapped in the Paleolithic.
Or at least that’s what I think now, and apparently that’s what they thought back then, too, because my mass-market paperback of Going All the Way, printed in 1971, features this ad copy, in 30-point type, inside the front cover:
YES, THEY HAD SEX IN THE 1950’s
Or at least, from the evidence of Going All the Way, they tried to. Sonny Burns, the hero of Going All the Way, fresh out of the service, spends most of the novel feverishly attempting to get someone—anyone—in his hometown of Indianapolis to have sex with him, other than his sweet and loyal ex-girlfriend Buddie. Sonny’s more relatable than you might think, though, because Wakefield paints him as torturously self-doubting—no “cocksman,” in the book’s parlance, but a guy who can’t turn his own brain off long enough to ever be at ease with himself or anyone else.
Here’s a quick journey inside the mind of Sonny Burns, the night he and his buddy Gunner have a hot double date planned, one that’s meant to end with them in an empty house with two gorgeous women but begins with Sonny applying some of his mom’s foundation to a pimple on the end of his nose:
“The pimple really depressed Sonny, because that was one thing he thought would stop happening when his real life began—getting a goddam pimple on the end of his noise at a crucial time. But there it was again, blooming right on the end of his nose, even though he was a college graduate and a veteran of the U.S. Army. He guessed he would probably have a fucking pimple on the end of his nose the day he died, and they would have to spread pancake makeup over it when they fixed him up for the casket display. People would pass by and say, ‘My, he looks natural—he even has a pimple on the end of his nose.’ Sonny suspected he’d be able to hear them say it, too, even though he wouldn’t be able to talk back. They probably had it rigged up that way for you in hell, so you could hear the last shitty comments and not be able to reply.
“Sonny was getting himself in a terrible state, and he was thankful that Gunner picked him up early so they had time to stop at the Key for a drink.”
Have a great date, Sonny!
“The truest and funniest sex novel any American will ever write,” blurbs Kurt Vonnegut on the book’s cover—surely the most alluring blurb any American will ever write—and the novel is funny, though it’s no farce. The early-20s sex in this sex novel is assertively true to life, depressingly so: None of Sonny’s sex is sexy at all, mostly occurring when Sonny is drunk enough to let go of himself but not yet drunk enough for his equipment to fail.
I spend the day today dipping into chapters of Going All the Way in between beachy family fun, and returning to his furtive, miserable confusion—his constant physical and emotional blue balls—is exhausting. It makes me appreciate the portability of the paperback, the putdownability—I feel comfortable breaking its spine, folding a page, tossing it into the sand for a bocce break. And it’s also handy to be able to tuck the book away when my daughter asks what I’m reading, since likely as not it’s something mortifying. (I bet this little book, especially with its Vonnegut blurb, got hidden under a lot of mattresses in its day, by teenage boys who read it hoping for fantasy material but who found themselves growing more disillusioned by the page.)
Sonny’s other role in this summer of ’54 is playing wingman to Gunner, who in contrast to his neurotic friend is easy with himself—he’s good with girls, has an ad agency offering him a fat salary when the summer’s over, and just seems to fit in. But Gunner, once the local high-school football star, is dissatisfied with small-town life after having his eyes opened on a three-month trip to Japan. (“It changed my whole approach.”) My favorite section of the book is when earnest Gunner, trying to assert his individuality, grows a beard, which basically puts the whole town in a tizzy—they won’t even let him in the country-club pool. (Sonny’s just grateful when they’re kicked out because he didn’t want to take off his shirt in public.)
These two make their way through a world where the rules are changing, even for women; his parents might judge the girls who have sex with boys to whom they’re pinned, but for Sonny and his compatriots that’s just the ecosystem they live in, and the book is remarkably free of slut-shaming. Perhaps that’s just because Sonny is so desperate that he’s deeply grateful for any slut he meets; what he can’t take are the girls who are “loads of fun,” which means, Sonny tells us, that they hate sex but try to make up for it “by talking a blue streak and faking a lot of laughs and suggesting ‘fun’ things to do like why don’t we all go to the zoo and feed peanuts to the polar bears. Girls who were loads of fun always loved to go to the zoo. You couldn’t lay a hand on them in the fucking zoo.”
Ah, poor Sonny. I just want him to find a girl, an actual girl who might love him and whom he might love back. Instead, the only actual relationship Sonny truly has is his friendship with Gunner, and really they have nothing in common other than their desperation for things to be somehow other than how they are. Going All the Way is a terrific book, energetic and compelling, but like others in the long line of novels about dudes clawing their way into adulthood—The Rachel Papers, About a Boy, Nathaniel P.—it mostly makes me glad to have a little gray in my beard.