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Jack’s Naughty Bits: Kevin Canty, Pretty Judy

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Jack's Naughty Bits



There’s
a popular conception of the teenage male as a kind of hormonal loose cannon, victim to
the changes of his body, seeking satisfaction anywhere, anytime. Literary counterexamples to
this stereotype are few; when Holden Caufield says no to the prostitute in Catcher in the
Rye
we think of him as an exception, not the rule. But male sexual psychology is more complicated than is typically
acknowledged. Interspersed with sexual desire are shame, guilt and confusion; the urge to pounce is
quickly replaced with the urge to run, and our first times are often as painful as they are
pleasurable.


    

But nowhere, to my knowledge, are the tortured psychological dynamics of the teenage
male drawn more precisely than in Kevin Canty’s short story “Pretty Judy” from his collection
A Stranger in this World. Canty sets up a storyline that’s a glass incubator for a boy’s
internal conflict. The plot goes like this: there is a retarded girl who lives on young Paul’s
block. She’s older, maybe high school age, but doesn’t go to school. She spends her time leaning
out her bedroom window, calling out to the neighborhood kids who pass by. Hi Paul. Hi
Tommy. Hi Ricky. Paul has heard the rumors, but he’s never gone in. One day he notices that
Judy’s parents’ car is gone and, fearfully, he goes up her stairs to find her waiting and
available. The excerpt below is the beginning of their first encounter. Had it been legal for me
to reprint more of the story, I would have done so, for each of Canty’s lines ups the ante and
intensity of their interaction to the point of breakage. But even here you can see the first stage
of his thinking, the teenage male’s Oh my god! Oh my god! She’s letting me! She’s letting me!
that is a function of the early belief that sex is alien to, unwanted and cordoned off by the
very girls with whom we’re supposed to be having it. But with Judy, this belief slowly
crumbles. Paul realizes that it’s he who puts up the barriers, he who brings the limits and
restrictions into their world. Judy can have sex unproblematically; it’s what makes her feel
pretty. Paul is pierced with guilt and self-loathing, and he’s never felt uglier.


    

For the full effect, you’ll have to read the entire story, and I encourage you to do so.
“Pretty Judy” is as forceful and immediate as a fist, and it knows where to hit.




* * *







From “Pretty Judy” by Kevin Canty






They knelt together on the window-seat cushion, touching at the shoulder and the hip . . .
Gradually Paul became aware of her body, her warmth and weight. What would she allow
him? A red Volvo passed under the window, a black sedan. His hand reached out, he watched
it like a movie, and touched her bare forearm below the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Paul himself
didn’t touch her, only his hand.


    

Oh, Judy said . . . Oh, she said again, and Oh! As he touched her breast through the
layers of fabric, sweatshirt and brassiere . . . It seemed to Paul that she was blind to anything
but touch, drunk with it. He lifted her sweatshirt and then put his hand on the hard lace of her
brassiere, no resistance, only her soft, lost voice, he rolled her onto her side, reached behind her
and fumbled with the little hooks until by some miracle her bra came unsprung and her big, soft
breasts tumbled against him. Paul felt drunk with himself, with excitement and with panic.
He had fumbled in playrooms before, in cars and in the rough grass of the neighborhood parks,
girls from the neighborhood who would negotiate a touch, or on some lucky Saturday allow his
blind hand to wander in the darkness of their jeans, but this, this plain revelation, was new to
him. She wouldn’t stop him, wouldn’t stop him from anything . . .


    

Later he would think of her in animal terms: she mewled like a kitten, bawled and
bucked like a hungry calf, and still later — years after — he would decide that this was because
there was so little human veneer to her; that sex and awareness were natural enemies, a battle
every time between modesty, a sense of order and embarrassment, and the little kindling flame
of desire . . .


    

Don’t stop, she said . . .





© Kevin Canty