Hands up the last time you read a hot sex scene in a literary novel. If you can't quite recall, I'm not surprised.
A male colleague remarked that Girl Crazy is likely meant for men; it's a book that understands and describes what (presumably upper-class, heterosexual, white) men honestly think. While I understand why he would feel this way, there are plenty of smart women readers who want books like Girl Crazy - contemporary, candid explorations of sex, power and how desire can disarm us - all of us. These are topics that queer writers have been tackling expertly for decades within our literature.
Novelist and Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith is one of the few writers who can take on the puritanical landscape of what's considered marketable in the hetero-centric mainstream and produce a book that is both daring and well executed. This is the kind of book I hope for when I scan books previews, because it's not a meditation on the loss of or a consideration of or heartbreaking rendering of anything.
Girl Crazy is about a nerdy, upper-class, sex-obsessed college teacher who, because of a hard-on for a 20-year-old stripper he meets in a park, becomes addicted to slumming with a criminal-class underworld he both judges and glamorizes. He's equal parts intelligent and socially clueless, able to locate and describe the hypocrisies in a corrupt college system, but unable to decipher his own internal contradictions.
Justin befriends Jenna, who is a knockout, and quickly becomes fixated on her. When they first have sex: "He had never felt so free. He had never felt so invited; he had never felt that he didn't have to ask permission for anything." When she talks dirty, Justin is "astounded." It's as though he had had sex only with very prim, near-mute women. He loves Jenna's ease around sexuality, but eventually wants to "save her" from the workplace environment that may have birthed her refreshing, forthright boldness in the first place.
It's fun to walk around in his head and see the women of Toronto through his heavy-lidded gaze
To say Justin enjoys sex and is a consummate voyeur would be an understatement. He sees the whole world around him as though he is travelling inside his own invisible peep-show box. Every woman we meet is described expertly with an autopsy of sartorial details. Justin isn't your average voyeur, with a stare like a visual wolf whistle; he's a straight guy who thinks about the fabric and colour of the tank top he wishes to pull down. It's fun to walk around in his head and see the women of Toronto through his heavy-lidded gaze. Justin explains away possible accusations of misogyny with the simplistic shrug of "the fright of helplessness that he felt when he found himself staring so hard at a woman who was not staring back: the feeling of seeping power, the loss of some kind of agency, that you were a wailing infant, waiting for her to feed you." Justin manages to be compelling in spite of, or perhaps because of, these weak Freudian thoughts that pass for insight.
Most will likely fixate on the sex in Girl Crazy, and why not? Smith writes it well; nary a cringe-worthy adjective, and raw enough to be real. But Girl Crazy is more about class than it is about sex; how the upper-class women in Justin's world take strippercize classes but bristle uptightly at the mention of porn. Justin's friends, with whom he gradually loses touch as he sinks into Jenna's social circle, are the kind of young professionals who frequent expensive restaurants in gentrifying neighbourhoods to feel cutting-edge, and talk endlessly about renovating their houses. Justin is an over-educated, failed writer who feels entitled to a lot more than he has in life, but is not very ambitious about trying to change that. He is 32, but somewhat conservative and old-fashioned, remarking that the hot secretary he likes to flirt with at work was "the same colour as half his students, and he really didn't know where they were from and he didn't ask because one wasn't supposed to." He calls biracial people "a modern thing."
When he does a line of coke at a late-night underground poker table, he thinks: "It was undignified, this bending and plugging and public sniffing." Still, he continues to delve deeper into a subculture not meant for guys such as him, because it connects him to Jenna, who has quickly tired of his concern and affection. Justin loses Jenna but gains an addiction to danger, enthralled in a suspenseful thrill-ride romance with his own possible demise.
Girl Crazy isn't perfect; some characters occasionally verge on caricature, including Jenna. But generally, Girl Crazy is a hot floor show for those of us desperate for the present to finally get its time in the Canadian literary spotlight.
Zoe Whittall's novel, Holding Still For as Long as Possible, also features lots of people having sex in Toronto, and is recently out in paperback.