Friday, October 26, 2012

The Most Unfortunately Titled Novel Ever Published In English

by Stephen J. Gertz

“They’re not flamingoes, Adrian thought;
there wouldn’t be flamingoes on Dildo Cay in September.” 

"A very unusual book, with a puzzling quality, an indefinable fascination and some very distinguished writing. The strangeness of the setting (an island off Jamaica), the inarticulated intensity of the characters, the mood that pervades the whole is absorbing. For 250 years, the Ainsworths had followed the pattern set by the founder of the name, who had brought some 200 blacks to the island; and continued the tradition of loveless marriage, the family salt mill as a focus of interest, and the impersonal relations with their people. Tension increases, and things come to a head when Delbridge, brought in to help build white prestige, is murdered. Adrian, scion of the Ainsworths, and Carol, hard-surfaced daughter of the slacker, Delbridge, are faced with a decision -- and meet the test. A strange book, very well done. But not a book for the casual reader, seeking entertainment. Read it and see for yourself" (Kirkus Reviews, February 13, 1939).

O-kay, let's read and see for ourselves. But caveat lector: I suspect the only salt from the Ainsworth  mill used by Kirkus to season this review was bath salts because the writer was clearly high on something.

"Ainsworths do not marry for love. They choose their women to carry on the line–thoroughbreds who can endure the loneliness and the eternal wind of the Ainsworth island–Dildo Cay. This speck in the Atlantic lies six hundred miles southeast of Great Bahama. Here the Ainsworths have lived for eleven generations–the one white family among two hundred blacks.

"Young Adrian Ainsworth has followed the family tradition in selecting his wife, Mary. Then Carol arrives with her father, hired to revive the salt industry on which the livelihood of the Ainsworths and the blacks depends. Carol is a glittering and sophisticated creature caught in a strange situation. Adrian’s deep, growing desire for Carol and the tension between her arrogant father and the blacks mount to an electric climax. Without sentimentality, but with a powerful honesty, the author paints a consuming passion against a romantic and exotic background" (Dust jacket flap blurb).

For the record, the dildo referred to in the title has nothing to do with phallic mascots. Acanthocereus tetragonus, aka the dildo cactus, abundant on Dildo Cay (a real place, aka Salt Cay, "The island that time forgot" in the Turks and Caicos, a handful of sand with salt), is a cactus species native to southern Florida and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in the United States, Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, and northern South America. Wherever for whatever, be careful where you plant it.

The Dildo Cactus (Acanthocereus tetragonus).

The book was, apparently, loosely based upon the Harriot family of Salt Cay, who dominated the tiny island's salt plantations, production, and export from 1829 until the local industry's WWII collapse, hence Carol and father arrive to revive with a saline solution to the Ainsworth's woe. "The Harriotts were very angry at being the basis for the book Dildo Cay by Nelson Hayes... Lawsuits were threatened. Winnie Harriott thought the best-selling book 'scandalous'" (Salt Cay Inside the White House).

Yes, you heard right. Dildo Cay was a best-seller. A British edition was issued in the same year, and - with no irony at all given the city was the locus of the 60's Sexual Revolution in Europe - an  edition out of Copenhagen.

"Dildo Cay is bad in ways that surpass its title. The product less of an unsteady hand than of a resoundingly tin ear, the novel’s prose is so categorically graceless as to supersede camp and plunge straight into ontological confusion. Herein, I’d like to suggest, is the triumph of an exquisitely bad book such as Dildo Cay: it is so earnestly bad as to call its own existence into question. In many ways, of course, the novel parades the typically forgettable qualities of other undistinguished midcentury fiction: tawdry displays of local color, liberal deployments of racism and misogyny, textbook Oedipal conflicts, and the hypertrophic use of italics. But Dildo Cay boasts countless passages that far exceed these indistinctions:

‘Father, I want to talk with you!’

Adrian had been watching his father walk the dike unsteadily, and suddenly he had seen himself at the age of sixty walking the dike unsteadily, and on top of his restlessness it was too much for him.

‘How strong do you think that pickle is?’ his father asked, ignoring the tone of Adrian’s voice.

"If ever the family romance has so forcefully raised its pickle, I know few other novels so susceptible to accidental (?) allegory. We all walk the dike unsteadily" ((Jonathan P. Eburn, Pennsylvannia State University, American Book Review Volume 31, Number 2, January/February 2010).

Rather than walk the dike, Hollywood decided to walk the plank with the novel in the hope of making a big splash.

Dildo Cay was bought by Paramount, adapted for the screen by Hayes and Virginia Van Upp, and released as Bahama Passage (1942) starring Madeleine Carroll and Sterling Hayden, with Dorothy Dandridge co-starring as the exotic West Indian maid, Thalia.

"The two most gorgeous humans you've ever beheld - caressed by soft tropic winds - tossed by the tides of love!" (Movie splashline).

"Bahama Passage is a leisurely bit of Technicolor exotica starring Madeleine Carroll and her future husband Sterling Hayden. Based on Nelson Hayes novel Dildo Cay, the story takes place on a remote Bahaman island where the principal commodity-in fact, the only—is salt. The owner of the island is young Adrian (Sterling Hayden), who inherited Dildo Cay from his family. The stultifying dullness of life on the island has caused all the wives of Adrians forebears to eventually descend into insanity, and it looks as though the same thing might happen to Adrians sweetheart Carol (Madeleine Carroll), despite her uncanny ability to look 
after herself. While Carol does not go crazy, her presence on the island proves to be something of a jinx, resulting in dissension amongst the native population. The most striking aspect of Bahama Passage is the extremely casual clothing worn by the stars: Why, one would think that Paramount was trying to get the audiences mind off the films slower passages by showing off as much cheesecake and beefcake as possible" (Bosley Crowther, New York Times, February 19, 1942).

Other books in the Hayes ouevre include Blockade (1935); Bahama Passage (photoplay edition of Dildo Cay, 1940); and The Roof of the Wind (1962). 

Salt Cay, aka Dildo Cay, Turks and Caicos. 2.5 miles long.

Those still interested in reading the novel may wish to heed the accidental cautionary note that serves as the book's last line: “Keep your jib full…our course is for Dildo Cay."

HAYES, Nelson. Dildo Cay. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940. First edition. Octavo. 328 pp. Cloth. Dust jacket.


  1. I thought for sure this post was going to be about "The Nigger of the Narcissus", but you found an even better one.

  2. A "dildo cactus?" Nothing in the broad panorama of sexual activities shocks or surprises. But it sure does boggle the mind.

  3. I was named for this book. (I am male, American and pronounced properly as "Key".) My granddaughter has Cay as her middle name. Little does she know...


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