Jack’s Naughty Bits: Gunter Grass, Cat and Mouse

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Jack's Naughty Bits

I never got to meet any members of The Circle Jerks, so I never got to ask them a question that has long mystified me. Modern literature is speckled with scenes of adolescent boys getting together to pull their puds en masse, but how widespread is the phenomenon? I, having had no childhood friends, am in a less authoritative position to say than most other people. The fact that I was never invited to one only means that they are no more common than birthday parties or trips to the roller rink. Nor, however, have any of the adult friends I’ve spoken to had the peculiar experience of wanking alongside a troupe of his classmates. Were we just the weird kids, left out of a truly common cultural event, or is the circle jerk something of a urban myth, exaggerated from its infrequent occurrence into apparent ultra-normalcy? I have no idea, and I doubt I ever will.


I do keep reading about them, however — most recently in Cat and Mouse, the second novel of Nobel Prize-winner Günter Grass. When you debut with a novel as prodigious as The Tin Drum, you set yourself up for a pretty nasty sophomore slump. But Grass was wise; he scaled back his ambitions (and his page count; Cat and Mouse is barely more than a novella) and succeeded in creating a laugh-a-page character study of a mythic wartime teen, Joachim Mahlke. Most of Cat and Mouse is staged around a half-submerged minesweeper in the Baltic off of Gdansk (then Danzig). A cadre of underachieving boys sits around picking gull droppings off the protruding hull (and eating them — yuck!) and occasionally diving into the black water, trying to salvage what they can from the ship. And Mahlke is their hero; only he makes it into the interior chambers of the vessel; only he dredges up lucre of any value; only he wears a screwdriver on a cord around his neck to aid in his liberations. And only he bears two other peculiar traits: an enormous Adam’s apple that bobs constantly (the mouse of the title), and a similarly oversized, similarly bobbing southerly analogue, the principal of the following passage. If circle jerks don’t happen in life, they still make great literature.

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From Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass

Translated by Ralph Manheim

She always found some good-natured fool who would get to work even if he wasn’t at all in the mood, just to give her something to goggle at. The only one who wouldn’t give until Tulla found the right words of encouragement — and that is why I am narrating these heroic deeds — was the great swimmer and diver Joachim Mahlke . . .


“Won’t you? Aw, do it just once. Or can’t you? Don’t you want to? Or aren’t you allowed to?”


Mahlke stepped half out of the shadow and slapped Tulla’s compressed little face left right with his palm and the back of his hand. His mouse went wild. So did the screwdriver . . . “Okay. Just so you’ll shut your yap.”


Tulla came out of her contortion and squatted down normally with her legs folded under her, as Mahlke stripped his trunks down to his knees. The children at the Punch-and-Judy show gaped in amazement: a few deft movements emanating from his right wrist, and his pecker loomed so large that the tip emerged from the shadow of the pilothouse and the sun fell on it . . .


“Measure it!” cried Jürgen Kupka. Tulla spread the fingers of her left hand. One full span and another almost. Somebody and then somebody else whispered: “At least twelve inches!” That was an exaggeration of course. Schilling, who otherwise had the longest, had to take his out, make it stand up, and hold it beside Mahlke’s: Mahlke’s was first of all a size thicker, second a matchbox longer, and third looked much more grownup, dangerous and worthy to be worshipped . . . Strangely enough, the length of his sexual part made up for the otherwise shocking protuberance of his Adam’s apple, lending his body an odd, but in its way perfect, harmony.


No sooner had Mahlke finished squirting the first load over the rail than he started in all over again. Winter timed him with his waterproof wrist watch; Mahlke’s performance continued for approximately as many seconds as it took the torpedo boat to pass from the tip of the breakwater to the buoy; then, while the torpedo boat was rounding the buoy, he unloaded the same amount again; the foaming bubbles lurched in the smooth, only occasionally rippling swell, and we laughed for joy as the gulls swooped down, screaming for more.

© Günter Grass