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Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
by Vince Passaro

A Non-review
by J Stefan Cole

There is so much going on in Vince Passaro's first novel, Violence, Nudity, Adult Content (Simon & Schuster, 2002) that I began to wonder what he could possibly have left in his arsenal for a second book. I think 'Adult Content' alone might have covered it. But it's an honest title in that readers are tipped off to a bumpy ride through text that often felt to me as if it really wanted to be a made for TV movie.

This is Will Riordan's story, a lawyer with a sensitive streak that veers towards the philosophical. He's not certain he wants to make partner in his prestigious, downtown firm, though he's going through the motions. He's not so sure he wants to be married anymore, either, but here he doesn't take any action. He's not too convinced, philosophically, that the world is a good place, but he's brought two young sons into it anyhow. He's typically overworked, under appreciated and generally harried by the fast pace of New York City life.

The book has it all: a rich divorce client who reveals to Will, in the back seat of a company car, that underneath his expensive suit he's wearing a white lacy bra and bright red panties. They have just come from a strip joint (the panty-wearer's idea which the high-priced lawyer couldn't refuse). Before that, they'd been to the firm's season seats at a Yankees game. And before that we learned that Will has been assigned a negligence suit, taking on the management of a posh East side high rise after a young, moneyed African-American dancer, turned writer, Ursala, has been raped and sodomized in her apartment. Not too many days later, we learn that the panty-clad client, Ron Adamson, is a suspect in his wife's murder. A full calendar for Will.

Among the firm's partners are the flirty, smart-talking, Sue; a chronic worrier, Jack, who enjoys foul-mouthed language chats with Will; the obese, Gerry, who is the tough but wise criminal lawyer ("Every client is entitled to a defense. If we don't give it to him someone else will."). And there's David Chin, an Asian-American homosexual, who also expects to be made a full partner. He and Will share a penchant for memorized movie dialogue: "David is the only person in the firm for whom I have a personal attachment; this is not true, I have some kind of attachment to a number of people. David is my only friend. He and I do dialogue from movies, throw quotes at each other at odd moments, see if we can catch each other off guard."

Did I leave anyone out? Will's Hispanic secretary with the nice legs. Oh, his loser brother, Michael, pops in for one scene, I have no idea why. "My brother is tall and wafer thin, eyes bright, bony in movement, like John the Baptist." (I always pictured John the Baptist as a big, gentle man, but never mind--what is, bony of movement, anyway?) And there are the many street figures; a sleazy blackmailer, two rapists on the loose, the lost, teenage son of the client in the red panties, a handful of homeless, cabbies and many observed riders on the New York Transit System.

The book could use some serious narrowing down. Characters come and go all over the place. Many elements dropped in as local color don't always integrate into the whole. The entire Ursala rape plot struck me as unnecessary. She is not a well-developed character, seems to exist in a vacuum, yet is given a fair amount of space, mostly in the form of e-mails written to Will in bold helvetica, eight point font. Like this: "...it goes dark, then light, then blood--explosions in red behind her eyes. she can say this: she understands herself in a wordless kind of way, and maybe god is good because slowly she is losing her sense of horror at the knowledge, but--how much of it can ever be communicated to someone else, mr riordan? why is the world organized in such inhuman ways, mr riordan? you are one of the organizers so explain it to me. is speech possible? mr riordan?"

Maybe I didn't pay close enough attention, but they rambled. I could find no solid connection between Ursala's rage and Will. And he disliked reading her ranting e-mails as much as I did. The story would have been okay without this character. That points to one of the problems of the book, a certain theatricality that doesn't always ring true. Yet, it's fast-pace and very readable. Will Riordan is not a character I minded following around the city.

And there is his wife, Ellie, and their sons, fourteen week old Sam and two and a half year old Henry. Will is open to his surroundings and very much aware, but we are told he's locked up inside himself because his Irish/Queens parents fought constantly and he has no example before him of how to behave. Ellie says he's not present enough, that he's turning mean. Question: This was not apparent before the boys were born? There is some mention of her feeling edgy around Will, unsure about them back when they were forced out of their ample law student housing to fend for themselves in cramped quarters. But now Will is making nearly two hundred thousand a year, and their flat on Riverside sounded plenty nice to me. I never got a clear handle on the problem, or quite why Ellie finally throws him out. Something about sex. Okay. But it's pretty well documented that for quite a while sex is not on the minds of too many women after giving birth. The book takes place after the second birth, so why all the sudden seething?

Ellie: "'A hand on my breast can't be nonintrusive,' she said. 'Especially after having two babies in two and a half years. Nothing can be nonintrusive after having two babies in two and a half years. My hormones, my psyche, and my will have formed a band and you know what their big hit is? 'Get the fuck away from me.'" Got the picture? Will's not getting any. That said, all of a sudden, on an outing--a law firm party at Jack's sumptuous Hamptons beach property--Ellie is all over Will in a hot page and a half of pure sex. It's a complicated book.

Will is still in the dog house, though, after the beach party romp, and marriage counseling begins. He takes the kids to Riverside Park on Saturdays. He buries himself in the office. He offers over and over to hire help for Ellie, but nothing works. She doesn't like him. Some mention is made of the poetry of their early life together, but really not one likable quality is brought forth on Ellie. It's not until near the end, the Hamptons scene, that we actually get to hear her speak. Will rents a one bedroom apartment near the kids and drives to Ikea for new home furnishings.

Meanwhile, back at the firm, Ursala has slipped further into the background--but for her ever more vengeful e-mails, while Ron in his red panties sits in jail pending trial. Now, here is the odd thing about this book, the real tension is Will and Ellie. Everything else becomes backdrop fluff. Will they reunite? Will Sam and Henry have a dad? Will will make partner even though he and Ellie find the law firm unhealthy for his psyche? Will: "Every time I think about partnership, I think: Hello, asshole. I might write a little essay, after I have been a partner for a time. "WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING." I rely on the typical cash flow of six or seven normal American families. I put in a year, perhaps two, finding small cracks and handholds in the cliff face of the law, a minute process, while (if I am with the program, if my career has the purpose of those of my colleagues) I plan my next big purchase and my next big vacation."

Will wanders the city on sleepless nights, musing as he walks. He goes on a first outside marriage date, and masturbates on the company toilet while recalling a large-breasted blonde he never actually slept with. David Chin happens to use the men's room while Will is in his stall trying to work his solo magic. The description of the bathroom episode curiously shares something with Ursala's rage: the color red. Her behind the eyes red rage, and the red accompanying Will's mental imaging in the bathroom climax. All meant to keep us inside Will's head.

After wading though all the atmospheric extras, I think the book is essentially an exploration of male sensitivity. Is it possible to have it all? Love your kids, love your wife, create a personal life while defending mostly crap at $150 per hour? To be the man. A little like if, say, Rick of Casa Blanca asked Ingrid Bergman's character, Ilsa, not go with Lazlo in the fight against evildoing. To stay behind instead and help him run the bar, have a few kids, yet remain sexy, befriend Peter Lorre's character--if he didn't die--and maybe do the bit for God and country by watering down the Nazi's drinks. To alter the song, a middle class hero is something to see. This is a manly man's hapless search for intimacy in a messy world of nudity, violence and adult content.

 

©April 2002, J. Stefan-Cole


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