A coming-of-age story metamorphoses into a global sexual odyssey.
Kurt Larsen, the ardent young hero of this debut novel, lives in the small Norwegian town of Bodø, north of the Arctic Circle, where privacy for a teenager in the late 1990s remains in short supply. Kurt’s dreams extend far beyond the constraints of his town; he wants to “canvass the entire world for perfect bliss,” he says; “I wanted to investigate the secret thoughts of my peers. I wanted adventure, to be a sex pioneer.” His pioneering is initially limited to placing ads for anonymous hookups with strange men. Through such desperate teenage measures, he meets Jonny Larsen, with whom he’ll have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the book, as Kurt moves on to college (where he’s the “thin-skinned, over-interpretative, horny type—a roaming satyr”). At university, the scope of his mission suddenly broadens immensely when he begins a fast-paced international flying agenda to qualify for an incredible airline giveaway that will provide him with five free tickets to anywhere in the world. On one of these stopovers, in Oslo, he sees Ragnar, a young man “on top of my list of candidates for sexual perfection,” to whom the entire narrative is addressed. Kurt clearly loses his heart to Ragnar, pleading with him that second chances at their kind of happiness don’t come along often: “Later in life there’d be work, family, and the twenty-four hour job of raising children.” The plaintive, hyperaware tone is typical of Kurt’s narration of his various erotic escapades, which are related by the author in prose that manages to be vivid without becoming either titillating or melodramatic (“Tomorrow I’d meet a dark-haired boy just under my height,” Kurt says of one of his earliest encounters. “And soon after, I’d remove his blue and yellow all-weather jacket and get down to some serious boy fun”). Kurt might at one point profess a desire to be normal and average, but in reality, his far-flung exploits are a rebellion against a young man’s hunger for experience and fear of stagnation. Karlsen conveys the poignancy of it all with extremely knowing skill, raising Kurt’s sordid, picaresque adventures to the level of a life quest.
A frank, funny, immensely winning novel about a “sex pioneer” exploring the hinterlands of desire.