A mildly subversive first novel takes aim at reality TV.
Twenty male contestants: the prize, one Virgin. The show’s taping is seen through the eyes of one of those contestants, 27-year-old Joseph Braun, who, with the help of his shadowy handler, Allison, wants to forge a new identity for national television. His new persona is Jeb Brown, a little less Jewish and considerably more assertive. Joseph was a nebbish: fired from his last job, facing eviction, celibate for the past two years because he lost interest in sex (so he claims). But his makeover is far from successful: He’s either tongue-tied or needlessly apologetic in his one-on-ones with the Virgin, an inadequacy that acts as a serious drag on what might have been a story with zip. Barmack is much more successful when it comes to the show’s producers. There’s the heavy, Andrew Weinberg, alternately threatening and smarmy when addressing the contestants: “together you will give America what it’s always wanted . . . innocence, romance and sex.” Then there’s Andrea, his manipulative sidekick, sweet-talking the contestants through “the process.” The action is divided between the guys’ down-time, when they kick back and banter (always on camera), and their interactions with the Virgin, where the ground rules allow kissing and touching, with the Virgin’s permission. There are excursions to the Met, to Vegas, to the guys’ families. Jeb fumbles all his opportunities yet survives the eliminations. With the Virgin, Barmack faces another problem: How to get inside her head? His unsatisfactory solution is to have her send teasing messages to the mysterious Mitch (a platonic boyfriend?). The guys are reasonably well differentiated, so there’s a smidgen of excitement in the horse race. Jeb is an unlikely finalist, but he can’t bring himself to touch the Virgin in the tacky opulence of their Mexican bedroom, and Barmack reserves his most poisoned dart for his surprise ending.
A halfway decent job of ridiculing a mass-entertainment phenomenon.