PEEPING TOM by Howard Jacobson


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Though British novelist Jacobson hitches suggestive trifles to his books (Coming From Behind, in 1983, was his first) and puts his Jewish boy/man protagonists through various obsessive sexual hoops (here, the hero, Barney Fugelman, is never so excited as when he's steered one of his successive wives into the arms of another man. . . and he, Barney, can watch); he's basically a sub-genre writer: British academic satire--with the Portnoyesque stuff put in as strictly gratuitous trimming. In this book, Barney Fugelman, living with lush first wife Sharon, who owns a bookshop, finds himself volunteering to be a subject for a visiting hypnotist. To everyone's surprise, under trance he seems to travel back in time and assume the voice of young Thomas Hardy. Sharon, in turn, becomes obsessed with the idea that Barney is Hardy, reincarnate; which ultimately allows Barney, a self-destructive sort of voyeur, to introduce a friend, a Hardy critic, into the Fugelman's marriage bed, a trois. And when Barney finds himself thrown out of that bed, he moves on, he and his Hardy business and the strange allure it seems to have for certain literary women. He moves to (where else?) Wessex, Hardy country; and there is taken in by Camilla, another Hardy fanatic/lecturer. How tireless Jacobson can milk this one donnish joke is call for some admiration; and the book is never less than raffishly stylish (""I had been trying to get other people to see the lewdness of the human body all my life. I had been baulked at every turn by jollity, blank incomprehension, lyricism, or sheer bloody-minded wholesomeness""). But the self-consciousness of the novel is its hallmark. You can compare it to an admixture of three academic-writer Johns: Barth with Hawkes with Irving--it's about that strategic. And unless you have an inexhaustible yen for grad-student extrapolation under a light gloss of fetishism, this isn't going to satisfy despite its smoothness.

Pub Date: May 24th, 1985
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin