After a strong beginning, this novel about a writer on an international sex tour doesn’t show much staying power.
Spencer has long specialized in inspired novelistic setups (A Ship Made of Paper, 2003, etc.), but rarely has he seemed to have more fun than he does here with the introduction of his first-person protagonist. Though scuffling freelancer Avery Jankowsky has traces of Bellow’s Augie March and Roth’s Portnoy in his voice, he’s as unlucky in his career as he is in romance. It seems he only has one real story to tell: that of his mother’s four marriages, which resulted in her son’s four successive surnames. He quickly runs out of steam with his potential lovers—perhaps it’s his fatalistic attitude toward his younger girlfriends that chases them away. Following the confession by his latest that she has been having an affair with a brutish Russian, he finds himself, through an improbable coincidence, booked onto what is supposed to be a first-class sex tour—through Scandinavia rather than the more child-exploitive Southeast Asia. The tour comprises the novel’s second and lesser half, as Spencer introduces so many characters that the reader has trouble keeping them straight, and Spencer (or Jankowsky) proves squeamish at writing about actual sex. What is billed as a fantasy excursion seems more like a farce, one that has the narrator waxing philosophic about his noble instincts and his animal nature, his struggle with good and evil (or at least bad) and his loss of the ability to make “the distinction between what was naughty and what was despicable.” Spencer makes potentially transgressive fare seem pedestrian, with the novel meandering its way toward a finale that feels abrupt and arbitrary—as foreplay ultimately leads to an anticlimax.
Against all expectation, considering the subject matter, Jankowsky is a more interesting character than the novel in which he finds himself.