A brief novel about an ambitious man that’s different from the usual fare.
Harnisch (Freaks, 2016, etc.) introduces readers to John Marshall (born Juan Marcinal), a young man who’s seduced in the prologue by a prostitute, Chantal. She gives him a picture of Che Guevara, who is, in her view, the archetypal seducer, and encourages John to follow in Che’s footsteps. John, who survived a miserable childhood, means to escape his station in life by seducing well-connected women and winding up at the top of the heap. He’s introduced to Clyde and Maribelle Roman as a tutor to their children and to a woman named Lauren; later, John seduces Maribelle. Also in John’s life are two priest, Father Padric and Father Peter, who help him in his rise. The author seems to be asking readers to see John as a religious figure, but this status is never really made clear. From the Romans, John moves on to the Sinclair family. Mr. Sinclair is a hotel magnate, and John becomes his secretary, aiming to turn himself into a gentleman. John seduces (and impregnates) the Sinclair daughter, Claudia, and then shoots Maribelle before other, unexpected story developments occur. There’s enough plot to fill twice the number of pages in this slim book, but there are also many questions: what’s the significance of the Che Guevara business? What is John’s (or Juan’s) background? Readers aren’t told, and they’re left adrift in so many parts of the narrative that it’s very hard to characterize the story as a whole. It seems to be set in the present day (for example, there are laptop computers), but, on the other hand, there are archaic notes (carriages, a highly structured society) which evoke, perhaps, the 18th century. The end of the book is so Dickensian, in fact, that readers may suspect that it’s a sendup of that style and will wonder if Harnisch has just been teasing them. If readers enjoy that sort of thing, then they will like this.
Readers may find it hard to make head or tail of this novella—which, believe it or not, may be the secret of its perverse charm.