I have yet to forget the first time I read those words, (and yes, in the exact context you’re thinking), back in the blissfully naïve early days of the internet, when the Nigerian Prince was literally the only scam we had to worry about, and chain e-mails were still kind of fun (kind of). And that’s where it was. Number 10 with a bullet on the “Top 20 Things Girls Wish Guys Knew About Sex” or some such pubescent provocation the increasingly randy female side of my sophomore class was circulating a-titter throughout our nascent network of AOL, Hotmail, and Juno accounts.
Size matters. It was an assertion I’d never considered before. An assertion for which I didn’t even really have any context. These were the days before Pornhub. The days before, at least for my shy and sheltered youth, much of anything. I’d seen mine, and maybe glimpsed my dad’s once or twice. I’d heard the name Ron Jeremy snickered over, and played along like I was in on the joke. But that was about the extent of my reference frame. And yet, to this day, that dumb list still feels like an inflection point. The implantation of a brand new worry into not just my brain, but the brains of my entire male cohort. The first time we truly had the wobbly-legged tables of sexual insecurity turned on us in (and this should really go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway) the exact same way that women deal with every day of their lives from the moment we start sexualizing them way, way too young.
I remember feeling fear and outrage in equal measure. I was a self-declared “nice guy,” after all. A listener. A carer. How dare they come at me with this shit. How dare they suggest that I might not be enough. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Even knowing, in the calmer seas of rational thought, that the vast majority of that list still resided in the abstract for all of us, boys and girls, and our (nearly)-all-talk suburban sex lives, it still felt like a shot across the bow. An affront. Fightin’ words. As a budding writer with an ax to grind, I quickly crafted a response list for my team and disseminated it into the ethernet. This skirmish of the sexes would not go unanswered. It was, as I recall, even met with a certain amount of approval and appreciation. Probably the equivalent of getting, say, 20 “Likes” today. And yet, when the smoke cleared, there was still only one clear takeaway. Size matters, the first e-mail had decreed. And from that day on, it did.
Now, you might be asking yourself at this point, what does any of this have to do with Debra Di Blasi’s poignant new novel Birth of Eros, a sonorously scat-sung romp through the gleaming, Populuxe LA of the 1950s? Well I’ll tell you. The male lead in this novel is, uhh, how you say, emphatically endowed. The man is packing heat. There’s an elephant in his trunks. He’s got beef in his briefs (and ain’t nothin’ brief about it). (Triple eggplant emoji). Yes, “The Father,” as he’s known to us via Lucy, the book’s omniscient infant narrator, is one of those guys who wears his confidence tucked carefully down one pant leg—who scoffs at opportunities most men would give their left nut for, secure in the knowledge that everything will work out for him in the end—knowing that he has nuts to spare. He’s not a bad guy. Not at all. He just moseys along, taking what life’s given him. It just so happens it’s given him a lot. Which makes it all the more meaningful when “The Mother/Beauty”—a not-at-all-bad gal herself, to whom God has also given with both divinely fondling hands—lands in his amply appendaged lap, and even he recognizes that the time has come to make his big move. That this is a woman deserving; a woman to revere above all others (as well as any possible future combinations thereof); a woman to hang your hat up for. Flung together on a modeling gig, they fall hard in the way that only two hardbodies who know they could have anybody can fall for one another, and the result is an aspirational advert power couple for the ages.
And advertising, whether whizzing by along the sundrenched California highway system, or humming low in the background of this very article, poised to pop out, pop-up, pop off at any moment, is really what’s at the heart of this heartfelt little book. Just like my shocked and outraged fifteen-year-old self, the strong, silent, self-made men of the postwar 50s were not used to having to worry about their dick size. Having left home in a world where there were certain things men and women just plain didn’t know about each other, they had returned to a brave new world. Still in many ways fresh off the battleship, they’d stormed beaches devoid of bunnies, and braved dizzying dogfights with no comfort save the bombshells splashed across their biplanes, and now, back safe from a heroic conflict in which they’d done their duty, they sought their just rewards. Enter “Big Bad Wolf”—Los Angeles’ number one used car salesman (has any profession ever been more instantly synonymous with sleaze?), looking to exploit first Beauty’s heavenly beauty, and then The Father’s own godlike proportions alongside it, all for his own monetary gain. In slapping this perfect pair on billboards up and down the strip, he works to single-handedly give rise to the modern customer shame game: Want her? Want to be like him? Fat chance pal. Look at yourself. The war’s over, and you lost. While you were off fightin’ the jerrys, Mr. Big was here, puttin’ it to all your best gals. You’re a chump, mac. No two ways about it. But hey, maybe if you had a cool car …
In Big Bad Wolf, Di Blasi has forged from the fires of Normandy and the Bulge (heh), a Promethean monstrosity of masculine frustration and anxiety. Big Bad Wolf is a terrifying construct—the kind of barbarous, unscrupulous, self-pitying proto-incel who sees every woman in the world as both a stupid whore to be bought, used, and sold, and a stuck-up bitch who would never give it to him for free anyway. His teeny weenie seems almost beside the point (though Di Blasi does confirm its minimalist construction) as we see him consumed by rage and self-loathing through proximity to the bodies, the lives, and the love he will never have. Determined to get his by whatever means he can connive, his manipulative schemes quickly turn to abuse and violence, until the day he finally goes too far, and the pretty picture of the American Dream he’s been selling at a tidy profit turns on him with a vengeance. It’s a satisfying comeuppance to be sure, but one that comes with a heavy cost. To reclaim their dignity was Beauty’s and The Father’s last big score. They know they’ve traded on their looks for the final time. Nothing’s ever as perfect as it seems in the ad.
Probably every generation of men stretching from Big Bad Wolf’s, through my own, and on to the porn-drenched, Big Mouthed zoomers of today, has faced its own disruptive moment of “size matters” truth. Indeed, if anything has helped me, after much quiet, internal resistance, to finally, reluctantly accept my place in the decade-demarcation hierarchy as an “elder millennial” (rolls eyes at self), it is that tweener sensibility of being among the youngest people alive who still remembers the world before the internet. My first decade and change was spent entirely offline, riding bikes along dirt roads, blowing giant soap bubbles, running wild and free through ethereal, sunlit meadows straight out of a Terence Malick movie (or, ya know, playing Nintendo and stuff). That chain e-mail (and, let’s be honest, the endless, ceaseless monsoon of free pornography that would soon follow it) was mine and my brethren’s brave new world—one in which we too would be painfully aware of our physical inadequacies—aware of just how bad the opposite sex thought we had it, and accosted by fearmongering sales pitches as to how we might pay to have it better—a world that prizes the physical above all else, seizes a little more turf from the innocence of childhood every year, and continues to raise up bigger and badder wolves in the process.
It’s only through Lucy, our indomitable “ugly baby” narrator, that we perhaps perceive some hope for a freer future. Nurtured by her father’s unconditional love, even while hardening in the crucible of her mother’s post-partum rejection (a rejection which, at the risk of imposing too much of my own sentimentality onto these characters, feels understandably born out of Beauty’s own experience of being valued always and entirely for her eyepopping looks—looks which she has failed to pass on to her popeyed daughter), Lucy is seemingly born with a preternatural understanding of the world that her attractively bubbled parents will live and die having barely scratched the surface of. Advertising of any sort only has so much to offer her. She learns early and often that she’s going to have to get by on her wits alone, and viewing Birth of Eros through the lens of the internet some 70 years after it’s set, with banners, clickbaits, and native ads between every paragraph of every story we read, it’s her early-adopted savvy that leaps out of the previous generation’s wreckage, and (hopefully) survives as the book’s most enduring truth.
At 170 pages (and even these trimmed to a diminutive 7×4.25”), Birth of Eros serves as its own rejoinder to the size matters debate (is that a book in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?). While a breadbox-dwarfing tome like Infinite Jest certainly doesn’t make it look easy to say absolutely everything you’ve ever thought about the ongoing horrors of corporate marketing and consumer culture, it is arguably harder—or, at least, requires a more discerning restraint—to fit such all-encompassing commentary into (probably literally) 99% tighter quarters. Di Blasi’s candy-coated LA is positively bursting with color, calling to mind the lascivious lambs and bug-eyed wolves of classic studio animation, as well as the perversely exaggerated, Ralph Bakshi-style subversion of same. Combining pinhole focus with a deftly bounding poetic style that I am honestly hard-pressed to compare to much of anyone, Di Blasi flies loop-de-loops of language across every page, stringing together alliterations and portmanteaus and synecdoches and onomatopoeias with a rhythmic, run-on zeal that made me want to hire a jazz drummer to improvise behind my BarcaLounger, quietly brushing snares and hi-hats while I read. This is a little book full to the brim with big ideas, and big feelings, and as such, its answer to the question at hand is a somewhat familiar one. Does size matter? Yes. Probably it does. At least to an extent. But ultimately, what really matters, is how you use it.
Birth of Eros, by Debra Di Blasi. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, November 2022. 170 pages. $14.99, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.