A young man falls in love with a sex worker in this novella by Havel (Mister Big, 2018, etc.)
The story’s narrator, Charlie, is a student at Trinity College in Connecticut. His family hails from New Hampshire, and he describes them as “Protestants and as white as they come.” At the outset, he reveals that the family lives on inherited wealth and that they probably won’t need jobs for the remainder of their lives. Charlie’s college life is far from carefree, however. He had no girlfriend during his first two years there, but after hitting his junior year and becoming “a bit taller, [and] less of nerd,” young women have started to notice him, he says. He’s also a self-described alcoholic, though, who has bad grades—which he describes as “academic concerns.” Charlie falls for Sophia, a sorority sister who initially treats him with disdain; however, they eventually embark on a casual romantic relationship. After Sophia gets pregnant and decides to get an abortion, Charlie gives up studying, and his life spins out of control. After he drops out of college, his parents tell him that he must be financially self-sufficient. He soon finds himself living in squalor in Albany, New York, where he works at a junkyard. His co-worker Cash takes pity on him, and he pays Gypsy, a sex worker, to visit Charlie while posing as a cleaner. Charlie becomes infatuated with Gypsy, who’s intent on fleecing him to fuel her crack addiction. Their relationship leads him into a criminal underworld, the likes of which he’s never encountered before.
This unappetizing new novella offers little variation on the age-old trope of feminine beauty leading men to ruin. Havel’s greatest strength, though, is his ability to create a believably flawed and naïve narrator. Charlie smugly spouts inane complaints about the position of women in society, which also hint at why he finds it so difficult to ingratiate himself to members of the opposite sex: “Modern society had little choice but to make women the choosers of their own mates, while men could only do so much to win his own.” The problem with this confessional format, however, is that many readers will find it difficult to pity the openly sexist Charlie, who ultimately engineers his own fate. The novella hangs on the notion that the protagonist’s sexual desire for Gypsy overpowers his common sense. However, Havel’s descriptions of sexual intercourse are clumsily conceived and lack any erotic energy: “When I slipped out from her body that hung over me, I found remarkable how the sheer ecstasy of having her in my bed warmed my whole body.” Havel also fails to convincingly explain why Charlie is so drawn to this particular siren, who’s underdeveloped as a character and lacks the allure required to drive a hackneyed plot. Still, Charlie’s voice, as a spoiled college kid, is utterly believable, and the novella’s exploration of Albany’s underbelly is mildly intriguing as well.
Few readers will be moved by this sexist narrator’s fall from grace.