Visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years can be fraught with trepidation. Is she still cogent? Has she grown lethargic and obese? Do you still have anything in common? Do her eyes still twinkle with mischief?
I’m happy to report Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire, is still in fighting trim, and every bit as relevant as she was in 1972 when Rosalyn Drexler introduced her. A new edition of To Smithereens, the novel where we met Rosa and a startling cast of other fighting women who were known as lady wrestlers back then has been published by Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions. The vivid cover is from one of Rosalyn’s paintings.
It may enhance your enjoyment of the novel—and appreciation of its astoundingly accomplished author—to know Rosalyn Drexler actually wrestled professionally as Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire for a short time. It may further amp up the author’s awesome factor for you to know she hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann and though less famous than her male counterparts, is considered among the top Pop Artists. As if that weren’t enough, she is also a well-regarded playwright, and award-winning writer on many fronts. She earned an Emmy for her contributions to a Lily Tomlin television special, Obies for three of her plays, and has written several novelizations, including Stallone’s Rocky (as Julia Sorel), in addition to her many novels. And the wonder woman isn’t done! At 85, she continues to paint, write, and struggle to find time for her relentless creativity.
At the time of first release of To Smithereens, the New York Times put Drexler in the company of Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Sue Kaufman (of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and author of Diary of a Mad Housewife), and Lois Gould, who also wrote about women’s lives.
Rosa was touted by critics as a female Holden Caulfield, but I doubt anyone would make that analogy today. Rosa is more street smart, for starters, less concerned with phonies, more certain of her pronouncements. And despite her tentative longing for someone who loves her, her strength transcends physicality. She’s brazen and outspoken; readers rarely have to guess what she’s feeling. There’s a matter-of-factly-observed severed penis in the book’s second paragraph; we find out early on that Rosa prefers the term cunt (“a hard word of one syllable: mean and sexy [it means business]”) to pussy (“a cutesy-pie way of relating to a part of the body that is neither feline nor filled with stewed fruit . . . and it sustains a childish attitude toward sex”), and that she doesn’t “like the word allowed! Not even the word privileged.” Beyond the fearless raunch, and frequently inextricably tied to it, is an underlying humor, a quizzical shrug at the human condition. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times, once called Drexler the first Marx Sister.
Rosa’s gloriously named art critic boyfriend Paul Partch still alternately endears and reviles. Knowing now what I didn’t know my first reading about the multi-talented Drexler’s painting, and her own relationship with critics, Rosa’s complex involvement with Paul illuminates more than a dominatrix fantasy. You have to assume the author enjoyed writing Rosa’s limerick for Paul:
“There was a young man in the arts
Whose comments exploded like farts
When he turned to the West
People liked him the best
For improving the air in the arts.”
The only obstacles that threatened my complete immersion in the story this time around were the references that jerked me back to the seventies. But what’s an occasional groovy or fink or a few hangups and vibes when everything else is so au courant? As playwright, novelist, and visual artist, Drexler has consistently been twenty years—or more—ahead of her time, creating characters and images on the leading edge of feminism. And you can bet she didn’t ask permission whenever she switched point of view mid-chapter. She just did it. And it worked.
It’s easy to imagine a new generation of young Rosas haunting the gritty movie houses and fast food dives of Manhattan, gargling Cokes, frequenting office buildings where the admonition, “Don’t use the elevator” doesn’t give them pause, carrying rolled up Newsweeks to swat roaches in public toilets, and domesticating bare-bulb flats while they wait for life to swoop them up.
They may be sporting tats and piercings their older sisters didn’t, and be perpetually plugged in to devices that hadn’t yet been invented back then, but in magnitude of conflicting impulses—insecurity and moxie, aggression and timidity, spirituality and agnosticism, death and sex—Rosa and her successors could be twins. A few might even recite “Howl” together.
From Rosa’s opening depression, through her tangles with awakening intellect, to the brink of stardom and back, readers’ expectations will be blown to smithereens, much as a “big explosion . . . God was the first Weatherman . . . from the big bang which blew everything to smithereens new planets formed.” We’re left with a constellation of unforgettable supporting characters in orbit around a resilient Rosa figuratively—and literally—flexing her muscles.