A Story In Which Polyamory Is Just One Part of the Plot

By Maria Padhila

I love finding out about books and movies in popular culture with characters with polyamorous relationships. I really love it when said books and movies aren’t all about the relationship but treat it as just another element in a character. I really, really love it when there’s a woman who loves two men. I really, really, really love it when it’s a crime genre / SoCal hardboiled / James Ellroy-influenced-with-flavoring-of-surf-noir novel.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.
Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

I think I just lost 98 percent of the audience. Well, that’s not something that stopped Don Winslow from writing Savages. There are as many raves for it as there are complaints about its eccentric writing style (which borders on beatnik free verse in places) and ‘unbelievable’ characters or plot. Consider the sources of the raves: Stephen King called it “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload.” New York Times’ Janet Maslin named it as a top 10 book of the year. And Oliver Stone’s making a movie out of it, which is scheduled for release July 6.

It’s quite a case for going with your creative vision, no matter how odd people might tell you it is. Here’s a plot breakdown: Ben and Chon have a lucrative, designer hydroponic weed business going, based in Laguna Beach, and O is their girlfriend. Between looking hot and playing volleyball, Ben goes off to “Third World” areas and helps dig wells and brings medical care and Chon does push ups (he’s a former Navy SEAL and contract fighter). Between looking hot and loving both of them, O shops and deals with her mother, a real real housewife of Orange County. The Baja Cartel makes a hostile takeover of their business, and kidnaps O. Wheels turn.

I don’t know where to start with all the ways I like this book, but sex is always a good jumping-off point, isn’t it? O likes sex. Unapologetically, just as she enjoys food without reservation (this is one of those sad ways that the characters are unbelievable. I would love to believe that there is a woman out there who enjoys sex and food without reservation or inhibition, but talk about your unicorns. Sigh.). When Ben asks her once, when they’re together, “How does Chon feel about this,” she replies: “It isn’t his tongue, isn’t his mouth.” When they hang out at a coffee shop Chon calls Yummy Mummy Haven, she scouts eligible women for him.

The guys are just as chill. On a morning after the three of them have sex together, Ben holds up his hand, his finger and thumb a millimeter apart, and declares: “We’re this close to being gay.” And they all fall out laughing, because, you know, they’re like, not. Being gay is being gay, being bi is being bi, and while both those places are lovely to be, and I spend my time in the latter myself, having sex with the same woman does not “turn you gay.” It just means you had sex with the same woman. It’s nice to read someone who gets it.

Ben and Chon in Oliver stone's movie Savages, based on Don Winslow's book of the same name..
Ben and Chon in Oliver stone's movie Savages, based on Don Winslow's book of the same name..

The guys are OK with it not because (as some commenters and bloggers have said, based on the trailer for the movie alone) they’re whipped or crazy or whatever, but because they’re supremely confident. And because they all actually like each other. Winslow gets the woman character pretty well, her combination of sharp mind and willful, determined shallowness and affectless surface. The latter is common to people who’ve grown up with betrayal and are determined not to be hurt. But I really love the way he captures the friendship between men. Both have flaws and vulnerabilities, both are damaged, but they’re tough enough to work together and not be threatened by each other or constantly jockeying for position. Neither is their closeness based on excluding the wimmenfolk, all the old ball and chains (that fallback fake closeness many men settle for).

And then there’s politics. I’m tempted to quote from this book all day long, but here’s just two.

Just a short while ago the Republicans were objects of fear and hatred — now they’re just pathetic assholes. Barry took them to the paint and cut their throats. (O-BAM-a!) Now they walk around like white frat boys in Bed-Stuy, talking tough to show they aren’t scared as the urine streams down their chinos into their cordovans. Obama has these dweebs so turned around all they can do is get behind some fat junkie DJ, a gibberish-spewing PchyoBimbette from the Far North, and a tele-dork who gives adrenaline-crazed, 1950s-style “chalk talks” (speaking of little white dicks) like some health-class instructor in a sex-offender unit.

And here, in two chapters, is how a very young woman sees her loves:

O is happy
that Ben is coming back.
Ben, her other bookend
The two men — Ben and Chon —
who mean something in her life.
The only two who ever have.

Ben is warm wood, Chon is cold metal
Ben is caring, Chon indifferent
Ben makes love, Chon fucks,
She loves them both.
What to do, what to do?

You see what I mean about the writing style? It changes to serve what needs to be served. I read this and I hear Chandler (my idol) in his ethical distinctions, John D. MacDonald’s environmental awareness, Kem Nunn’s sense of California’s shadows, Ellroy’s understanding of the connections between men and how friendship and loyalty are expressed (oh and also the verbal pyrotechnics). I won’t go on with all this because I can’t assume everyone else is a crime/detective genre fanatic like I am, but I’ll just throw out how I’d be happy to blab with you in the comments if you are. There were a couple of decades there where you couldn’t get out of film school without noir becoming your foundational philosophy on life and your guiding aesthetic, and I am of that age.

Which brings us to Oliver Stone. Most people hear Stone, think conspiracies and shit, and check out. I don’t — there’s your film school influence again. His wild facility with styles and techniques and unerring ability to cut and collage different looks and tones make him a natural with the way the book is written, but then there’s a lot of scripting that has to evolve in between, so one will have to see. Tarantino’s probably the best filmmaker in America now, but none of them — absolutely none — can combine Stone’s grasp of the basics with his experimental, technical virtuosity, both in sound and visuals. He can make a classical American story, as rounded and sweet as an ear of corn, if he wants to. Or something that challenges that ideal at every switchback. What I’m hoping for is “Natural Born Killers” tightened up like a spaghetti western and given a heart transplant.

[Alert: If you have a blanket policy against violence in your fictional depictions, you’ll want to get off at this stop. The book deals with drug cartels, Afghanistan and Darfur. Lots of violence there. If you can make it go away in real life, that kind of might be the place to direct your energy first, instead of censoring books and films.]

I’m having that phenomenon I’d always managed to avoid as a reviewer hit me, the ‘that’s not what they’re supposed to look like/be like’ thing. The girl in this case is played by Blake Lively, who has been in a popular network TV show, “Gossip Girl,” that I’ve never seen. I liked her in “The Town,” and her work in this video is stunning. But I thought of someone younger, tougher, more anime/gamine in the part.

What’s interesting is she’s starting to get called a slut on a regular basis because of taking this role. People complained that the character in the book is “unlikeable,” and the character is also a woman who unapologetically enjoys sex. Coincidence?

Here’s what Lively said about her character in an interview in Bullet magazine:

“I think it’s really hard for people to digest that these privileged kids are in a three-way relationship,” the actress said of her character. “Your heroes are all sleeping with each other, but they’re also in love. It’s very easy to dislike them, so when my character gets kidnapped, it’s like, ‘Well, good riddance!’ My greatest challenge was to make her life worthy of saving, to find the heart in this story.”

Don’t like the role of Ophelia? It turns out Blake Lively doesn’t much care. “I’m not in the business of trying to win the approval of my cast members, my director or my audience,” she went on to say. “If I were, I’d be so beaten down by insecurity that I’d never be able to perform. The only person I’m trying to prove something to is myself.”
I haven’t found any interviews with the boys detailing how they feel about the roles. One reason I’m hoping the movie does well is so that there will be a lot of interviews and some comments about the characters’ relationships will come out. The more talk, the better.

But to me, the actors look like they’re just breaking out of Nickelodeon, when their characters are supposed to have been around the block a few times. They’ve got to be past quarterlife for all they’ve experienced. (Of course my dream double team, Viggo Mortensen and Idris Elba, would be a little too old.)

The former Navy SEAL character is played by an actor who was acclaimed in the TV series Friday Night Lights, about football players, so I asked Issac about him, since those sorts of issues are pretty much in his wheelhouse. I text: “Is Taylor Kitsch any good?” Back: “You’d have to be the judge of that.”

The other is played by Aaron Johnson, who will next be playing Count Vronsky in another film with a love triangle. In real life he’s about 21 and a new father, with his 44-year-old filmmaker partner (who’s been made a member of the OBE by Prince Charles). He posed with her nude during her pregnancy, in a shoot for German Vogue. I quite like the sound of this young man. And now I’m starting to feel like Gossip Girl.

But one more point before my mic’s cut off: Judging from the movie trailer, O seems to spend a lot of time being tortured. Judging would be the operative word — you must pay for your pleasure, correct? In the book, her kidnappers treated her well for kidnappers; she was a business pawn, and there was no profit in fucking around with her or damaging the goods. This was a scenario that makes sense; abuse of a blonde girl is just SOP for movies and a failure of imagination for this one.

12 thoughts on “A Story In Which Polyamory Is Just One Part of the Plot”

  1. I confess that I was completely hooked on Friday Night Lights (they’re not showing it here on non cable TV any more, was in mourning for a while). Taylor Kitsch (wot ein name!) is totally gorgeous, and was wonderful. But sometimes such actors lose it when they go into moveis, it’s often a case of excellent casting in these TV series.
    And as always, Maria, was so stimulated by your review/life, sex n culture reflections.

  2. Sounds cool, I’ll wait for the movie and then read the book. It’s the best way not to ruin a book.

  3. Hmm. I cannot do both whole hog, so to speak. If one is the main course, the other is the side dish. Please. Did I mention not to ask me to do both at once?

    That aside, great piece. I look forward to reading the book and seeing the film.

  4. Just read the first few pages. Perfect… for better or worse. It does put a rather heroic spin on growing and dealing the Chronic – about which I have more than a few reservations for people who are still too young to pay their own taxes. Anyway, I’m ordering it… then, we’ll see.

  5. usually if i really like someone new, we’re too busy talking to even look at the menu for at least 45 minutes, despite telling the server that we’re going to, but that’s not quite the same thing as nerves. 🙂

  6. “that there is a woman out there who enjoys sex and food without reservation or inhibition, but talk about your unicorns.”

    Well…I enjoy sex without reservation but I cannot enjoy food that way because to do so makes me fat and unhealthy. So I enjoy certain foods without reservation and stay away from the rest.

    I always enjoyed sex without reservation; everything in sex was like a choice banquet to me when I embarked on the journey of discovery. That exuberance was contagious and my lovers felt it. It was the women in my life (friends or co-workers I was dumb enough to confide to) who castigated me and shamed me.

    We women need to stop doing that to one another and be the unicorns we are in all our unabashed, sex-loving glory.

  7. i know, fellow unicorns–exaggerating for effect…but there’s also a side plot in the book about O’s mother and her endless plastic surgery, workouts, diets, miracle creams, quests for enlightenment…the orange county treadmill for females and the rebellion against that.

    (it actually is hard for me to eat around someone new who excites me, tho. after a while i get over it.)

  8. I am not only gonna acquire and read it, but if it lives up to billing, I’m gonna slip it to my kid’s g/f. They’ve got some confusion going about love and jealousy, and for all their beauty, are insecure enough to look to the culture-at-large for their cues on this issue. It would be good to have some back-up.

  9. funny, mysti —

    that’s the part of this piece that had me saying, “whoa, nelly!” as i edited it. 🙂

    now, if unapologetically/unabashedly enjoying sex means, “absolutely without any hangups or baggage or issues still to be worked out,” then i guess i’m no unicorn. but if it just means happy to talk about how much i enjoy it without embarrassment or shame, and willing to say yes (even if said baggage inserts a little indecision at first) when a suitable opportunity arises, well then… yes, this herd of unicorns is growing.

    i absolutely *love* good food — cooking it, eating it, growing it, reading and talking about it, smelling it — oh, did i mention eating it? and no, i never *ever* push around a salad absentmindedly while on a first date with a man. i’m asking to try his dish and offering mine and barely stopping short of licking my plate if it’s truly exceptional.

    but yes — i understand this is not the norm in many circles. which is truly a shame — since passionate enjoyment of food and sex are, in my opinion, pretty basic, primal, fundamental joys of living.

    anyway — i wonder if, with all else going on, i can get that book read before the movie comes out? sounds like a fun read. thanks, maria!

  10. “that there is a woman out there who enjoys sex and food without reservation or inhibition, but talk about your unicorns.”

    Huh? Oh wait, so *that’s* the bump on my forehead!

    Nah. We’re real enough, right Patty, Be, Erin, Margaret, Mandy? and who knows how many others…

  11. Thanks for the rec. Sounds delish. As for underestimating OS, never! Senor Stone is part of my 2nd degree – had to negotiate use of the 6th Floor museum w/ Bob (Hays – cf “Occasion”). Hays was its first director. All part of what Bob called ‘the JKF healing.’ Stone is indeed some part shaman, rarely ever turns his attention to anything we don’t need right . . . about. . . . . . Now.

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