This novel about the sexual revolution is ultimately something of a tease, with far more talking and reading, and talking about reading, than consummation.
Though Amis (House of Meetings, 2007, etc.) has long been acknowledged as the foremost disciple of Saul Bellow in contemporary British literature, the opening chapters of his latest read more like lubricious Philip Roth. The year is 1970, the protagonist is 20-year-old Keith Nearing and the setting is a castle in the Italian mountains, where the normal rules—if there are still any normal rules—concerning sexual propriety can be suspended. The protagonist is the same generation, height and nationality as the author, who at one point assures the reader that “the summer in Italy wasn’t art, it was only life. No one made anything up. All this really happened.” What happened? Not much, though the summer apparently had lasting repercussions for the protagonist, with the narrative offering a series of present-day interludes that invoke his multiple marriages and daughters. In 1970, among those with whom Keith shares the Italian castle are three women. The one who reduces him to drooling obsession is Scheherazade, a male fantasy (satiric? ironic?) of a voluptuary who is “oozing out all over,” has yet to realize her power over men and is suffering from sexual frustration. As the literary-minded Keith muses, “According to an English novel he had read, men understood why they liked women’s breasts—but they didn’t understand why they liked them so much.” Then there’s Gloria Beautyman, whose posterior is as riveting as Scheherazade’s bust, and who appears even more available. Hardly standing a chance amid those competing attractions is Lily (one of the many flower-named females in the novel), Keith’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, with whom sex is perfunctory. Amid this “erotically decisive summer,” the reader’s frustration becomes almost as great as Keith’s, as extended discourses on literature, life and religion lead to little resolution, literary or otherwise.
“You can’t write about sex,” maintains the narrative, an assertion the novel corroborates.