By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
Maggie Estep has an army of toys won at Coney Island. Pictures of ancient surgical instruments and old postcards decorate the walls of her East Village walk-up, and a mammoth stone horse's head sits in one corner. Atop a bookshelf stands a life-size plastic skeleton of a human child. Estep displays her passions for public inspection-not only in her home, but also in her writing. Soft Maniacs, her new short story collection, departs from Estep's established identity as a mouthy spoken-word poet who details the inanities of urban life. Overtly erotic, the book is about the same obsessions visible on her walls: circus life, medicine, the bond between humans and animals, and the problem of creating a happy domestic life that doesn't conform to any established mold.
Estep's childhood bounced her between a conservative mother living in France ("she's very old-fashioned and is appalled that I have premarital sex") and a father who moved around America working with horses. "It was sort of a bizarre thing to go from white trash horse trainer existence to upscale French Catholic school existence, and then back again," she says. "[The horse trainer life] was a strange sort of circus. That's why I have a latent obsession with circuses and carnivals. The whole nomadic thing."
In person, Estep is small, dressed in black, with a deep resonant voice. Much like the heroine of her 1997 first novel, Diary of an Emotional Idiot, Estep arrived in New York when still a teenager and became a junkie. "Moving to the Lower East Side in 1981-it was madness then," she says. "Me and a couple of friends were just filthy punk rockers going to CBGB's and shooting heroin."
"In rehab," she continues, "I felt like I made a bargain with the devil, because the moment I started detoxing and suffering, I started to really write. That's the thing that's keeps me on the path ever since. If I ever go off-kilter again, I'll have trouble writing."
A friend soon convinced Estep to read her short fiction at an open mike night, and her angry, "not normal" image was born. "I was so scared that I had what seemed like a stage persona," she says of that first reading. "I was very animated." While paying the rent with jobs as a maid, go-go dancer, factory worker, and clerk, she started performing regularly at Café Bustelo and the Nuyorican Poets' Café. Estep's pieces were short narratives about infatuation, street life, and sexual empowerment. "I'm the sex goddess of the Western Hemisphere!" she'd yell. One night, scouts from MTV saw her act.
"It transformed my life," says Estep of her spoken-word spots on cable television. She made two albums of her verbal pyrotechnics, No More Mister Nice Girl and Love Is a Dog From Hell, and went on tour with Lollapalooza. "[The poets] never had hotels. We stayed in the bus and we showered when we could. . . . We were the dirty stepchildren, the total outcasts," she laughs. Estep also got a book deal, and began the move from performer to novelist. "I didn't want to be Spalding Gray. I wanted to be Denis Johnson," she explains.
She is one of those writers who has to write; words pour out of her. "There's too much artifice in fiction," Estep says. "You just feel the writer's presence so strongly, and the plot devices, and it's tedious. I like it when you don't feel that, when it's just this id, roving."
Emotional Idiotis written in the kind of urgent babble one might expect from a roving id. "I became convinced my ex-boyfriend is fucking someone with blue hair," moans the protagonist. "And this sent me over the edge. I even listened to Joy Division and turned off all the lights. It was ridiculous. I felt like an emotional sub-dwarf. So then I started obsessing over my other ex-boyfriend, the one I left the one who's fucking someone with blue hair for. He's a jerk. He dumped me cruelly. And I think of him fondly."
By contrast, though, Soft Maniacsis a group of carefully constructed interlocking short stories-all narrated by men. These men get involved, one way or another, with three women who themselves connect briefly in the first story. The most memorable is Jody, a nymphomaniac psychiatrist. "Some weeks Jody shot speed and studied those psych tomes for days on end . . . pausing only to jerk off and suck her thumb," says one narrator. "She made me suck dicks and fuck monstrous women. She had a dog lick me once. She tied me up. She rammed zucchinis up my ass. She beat me. She was incredible, and I loved her."
"I had a boyfriend whose old girlfriend was completely unrepentant sexually and in every way," explains Estep of her inspiration. "I was fascinated and tried to get stories out of him. He wouldn't tell me that many, and so I speculated and invented Jody."
The book began when a friend dared her to write a story in the voice of a man. Although she'd built her reputation on angry babe rants like "The Stupid Jerk I'm Obsessed With,"Estep stepped out of her persona to write "The Patient," the tale of a"nice Jewish boy"who,in a sex frenzy initiated by his sex maniac lover, impregnates an elderly lesbian and loses his mind. "It was so easy," smilesEstep,about writing in a man's voice."And it was so much fun-I have these guys talking in my head," she laughs, "and they're horny."
But despite some almost terrifying sex scenes, Soft Maniacsis an optimistic book. It ends with monogamy, with a patient nurturing a shrink, and with the adoption of dogs and children-a sign that, at 36, Estep is far from the jaded pundit she may have seemed on MTV. "I think it's about having hope in human relationships in the face of adversity," she says.
She now writes full-time, delving into research for a new project on 19th-century female gangsters that will take shape both as a novel and as a spoken-word opera in collaboration with Elliot Sharp. In the context of that work, she doesn't see Soft Maniacsas an investigation of male sexuality so much as a look at the relationship of the sexes at this moment in history. "The way women were treated until very recently was really, profoundly abysmal," says Estep. "Things have changed around a lot, and now it's so interesting to see these powerful women and these men just utterly rendered into jelly by them. I'm fascinated with that."