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BOOK: Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Modernizing lesbian pulp fiction

The fun of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (Kensington $18) comes in two forms.

First, the surplus of exclamation points — “Wild Women! Lurid Adventures! Shocking Desires!” — and the nudge-nudge-wink-wink kitschy knowingness of the retro cover art and storyline (“Her soul was pure. Her desires were sinful. Her typing was impeccable.”). These elements loudly alert readers that irreverent San Francisco-based author Monica Nolan, who calls herself “a filmmaker and writer who’s made a number of short films you’ve never seen,” is stomping brazenly on a ’50s genre — the lesbian pulp novel. (You might check out Ann Bannon’s classics Beebo Brinker (1962) and I Am a Woman (1959) if you’re after the genuine stuff.)

Nolan retains the fast-paced plot, the office intrigue, the soapy romantic entanglements, the character types (the femme fatale, the unsmiling butch, the quirky tomboy), the cocktail consumption and the quaint small-town-girl-learns-fast-in-the-urban-jungle motif, and in doing so, spins out a curiously riveting story that contains a sweet and satisfyingly rich core. Who’d have imagined that the secretarial pool at Sather & Stirling Advertising could generate such drama?

We can’t help but cheer as former cheerleader-turned-lesbian career girl Lois steers successfully through the treacherous waters of work and romance in the hustle-bustle of Bay City. She’s even rewarded with a sensible girl who’ll keep her on track.

The other part of the novel’s fun springs from Nolan’s dedication to genre renovation.

She confidently works within the mid-century lesbian pulp fiction genre, but gleefully jettisons the old-school moralizing homophobia and sexism that frequently came with it.

So, in place of the phobic lesbian stereotypes of the genre relating to being predatory or a victim or psychologically damaged — and also being doomed to a life of loneliness, sad promiscuity, alcoholic bitterness or endless heartache — there’s a sorority of capable, like-minded women who have intelligence, élan and confidence, despite living in a world that doesn’t exactly embrace them with open arms.

It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy, of course, but there’s no harm in it — and much pleasure.