Face to face with the 'Campus Sexpot'
Author's memoir addresses scandal and character
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- David Carkeet had the ultimate airport novel, and he couldn't wait to read it.
The book was "Campus Sexpot," a smutty paperback from the early '60s he'd been given by an old high school friend. The book, by a little-known author named Dale Koby, concerned a teacher and his doomed love affair with an "amply endowed" student, set against the backdrop of a small California town with its cast of stock characters: a dull principal, a good girl in trouble, a noble boyfriend, a sneering hooligan and a handful of teachers, students and authority figures.
Oh, yeah: And it was based -- very directly based -- on Carkeet's own high school and his hometown of Sonora, California, and was written by a teacher who (oh, yeah) had left town in a hurry.
Indeed, the book was the hottest title in Sonora in 1962, as townspeople fortunate enough -- or stealthy enough -- to obtain a copy scanned the work for mentions of friends, colleagues and perhaps even themselves.
Carkeet, 58, hadn't seen the book in years, and as he settled in for his flight, he couldn't wait to see if time had changed the book from pulp potboiler to cutting dissection of small-town manners.
It hadn't. The book was terrible.
"I was so disappointed," the good-natured author recalls in a phone interview from his home in Vermont. "It was even worse than I thought."
But Carkeet, the author of "I Been There Before" and "The Full Catastrophe," set out to make lemonade from the overripe, sour fruit of the book. The result is a book called "Campus Sexpot" (University of Georgia Press), a work that starts out as humorous critique and becomes a thoughtful small-town reminiscence and memoir.
Carkeet had already written a series of personal essays for a magazine. But in his mind he "felt the urge to do something bigger," he says. "The Koby book had always been in the back of my mind."
Looking for 'good parts'
Carkeet's "Campus Sexpot" begins with a series of passages from Koby's book, with Carkeet offering witty evaluations and personal asides.
The author was 15 when the original "Campus Sexpot" came out, and he remembers his underclassman self well. He was a short kid, hapless football player and sufferer of occasional hormonal frenzies. (Indeed, that's Carkeet on the cover of his own book, standing on a chair to kiss a mysterious older student.) He was a good student -- one of the school's academic leaders -- and the son of the town judge; but he was also a teenage boy, blazing through Koby's book looking for the "good parts." (The sex, of course.)
But in Carkeet's "Campus Sexpot," the search for Koby's "good parts" -- that is, well-written sentences and a sense of story -- give way to something more. The adult Carkeet contrasts Koby's portrait of the barely disguised town with the real thing, offers about his own memories of early-'60s Sonora, and then goes in search of Koby himself: the man and what he represents.
"My main 'rule' ... was that I could talk about an event from my past only if it plausibly sprung from some reference in the original 'Campus Sexpot,' " Carkeet says in some publicity notes. "It's a rule I grew to curse, owing to the impoverishment of Koby's book."
Indeed, Koby's "Sexpot" takes place in a vacuum: there's no acknowledgement of sports, television, music, nightlife, politics or anything real people would have touched at the time, Carkeet writes in the book. Even the sex is dry, more the product of human machinery than human emotion.
"It wouldn't be much of a book if I kept [critiquing Koby]," Carkeet says in the interview. "The more I got into it, [the more I realized] this is dealing with good and bad."
'I'm immensely grateful'
David Carkeet uses an old pulp novel as a jumping-off point for his memoir, "Campus Sexpot."
Which leads "Campus Sexpot" to Carkeet's membership in DeMolay International (a junior civic organization popular in the West and Midwest), the inspiration of his best teachers -- and his father.
"A life can go wrong in many ways, and Koby's illustrates a few of them," Carkeet writes. "My father's life went seriously wrong too, for a time, and it could have stayed wrong."
Judge Ross A. Carkeet was an Elk, a Lion, a college advisory board member, respected elder, considerate judge (more than once local miscreants would tell David or his brother, "Carkeet, eh? Your father saved my ass"), loving father of three. He was also an alcoholic. Yet he managed to look into the chasm of his own weaknesses and pull away.
"I felt very lucky," says Carkeet. "Things could have gone the other way."
Dale Koby, though, gave in. His life after his short English-teaching stint was marked by the dismal "Campus Sexpot," then other, bleaker and more graphic, sex novels. Koby's work and life, observes Carkeet, appears marked by unhappiness and agitation.
Carkeet's own work is often marked by a humane understanding, whether it's an existentially challenged baseball team ("The Greatest Slump of All Time"), a Mark Twain at odds with the modern world ("I Been There Before"), a bickering couple employing a linguist as a counselor ("The Full Catastrophe") or a successful family facing sudden tragedy ("The Error of Our Ways"). His books have been well reviewed, even award winning (his first novel, the mystery "Double Negative," was nominated for an Edgar, and "Campus Sexpot" won an award from his peers), but fall short of the best-seller list.
"Sometimes I pull my hair out," he says. "Yet I'm immensely grateful simply to be published."
"Campus Sexpot," though it seems a natural for both story time and Father's Day, is probably in no danger of challenging "The Da Vinci Code," either. But it's already been a good experience for Carkeet. He's heard back from several high school friends and gotten "a really nice response."
Besides, he got to honor his family, review his childhood, and read a really, really bad book.
"I had more fun with this than any human should have," he says.
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