| Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
by Vince Passaro
by J Stefan Cole
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
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
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
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
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