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Willing by Scott Spencer

Christopher Kelly
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Spencer's endearingly lighthearted new novel is a comedy about a neurotic writer on a globe-trotting sex tour.


Publisher: Ecco
ISBN: 9780060760151
Author: Scott Spencer
Price: $24.95
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-03

Scott Spencer's endearingly lighthearted new novel, Willing, introduces us to Avery Janowsky, a 37-year-old New York City writer who -- after being unceremoniously dumped by his 20-something girlfriend -- is given an unusual gift by his flashy uncle: an all-expenses-paid ticket on an ultra-high-class sex tour through Iceland, Norway and Latvia.

The tour is the brainchild of Lincoln Castle, who charges wealthy men $135,000 to spend time with women much too classy to be regarded as mere prostitutes. "These are God's grand-slam home runs," Castle explains to his customers.

It sounds like the makings of an exceedingly erotic romp -- or at least one of those alternately breezy and misogynistic comedies, like The Breast and The Prague Orgy, that Philip Roth occasionally wrote in the 1970s and '80s. But Avery turns out to be a classic New York type -- a Jewish neurotic suffering from an Oedipal complex -- and Willing is more a story about his comic failure to escape the shackles of his upbringing and his moral code. Indeed, by the time Avery's mother begins chasing him across the globe trying to halt his participation in the tour, it's clear that Willing is going to remain a strictly PG-13-rated affair.

Despite some very funny passages, it also remains a strictly minor effort. Spencer is a journeyman novelist who wrote such titles as Endless Love (made into the Brooke Shields movie) and Waking the Dead (made into the Jennifer Connelly movie) before he hit pay dirt with the beautifully wrought A Ship Made of Paper (2002), a National Book Award-nominated tragicomedy about an interracial love affair in upstate New York. In Willing, he impressively brings to life an anxious, obsessive lead character, a creation that in lesser hands might easily come off as a cliche.

But you can't help feeling that this new book is a step sideways instead of forward -- the sort of inconsequential curio a writer might toss off in between more meaty projects.

Spencer introduces a bizarre collection of fellow sex travelers, including an NBA superstar, a bellicose sporting equipment magnate and an obese computer-software billionaire. We then follow Avery on a series of increasingly absurd misadventures, including a violent encounter with a group of Icelandic bullies who resent Americans coming to their country for sex.

In Platform (2002), the French writer Michel Houellebecq used the concept of a sex tour to serve up a blistering and unabashedly cynical portrait of modern life and religious extremism. But Spencer has no such ambitions. Indeed, the more time we spend inside Avery's head, the more it becomes apparent that Willing isn't really about anything -- other than, perhaps, a guilt-prone Jew learning to overcome his neuroses about paying for sex.

And even more than evoking memories of characters created by Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman and Woody Allen in the 1970s, Willing sometimes unintentionally feels as if it is taking place in the 1970s. Avery is supposed to be a barely employed freelancer, who -- despite the occasional gig for Esquire and Rolling Stone -- relies on income from his deceased father's estate to pay the rent. But someone needs to tell Spencer that freelancers no longer have literary agents whom they can call to pitch stories to editors; or that a book proposal by an unknown writer, even a juicy one like Avery's -- he decides to craft a nonfiction book about the sex tour -- wouldn't likely score a $400,000 advance in one afternoon in the modern publishing industry.

But despite these flaws, Willing is a breezy and engaging read. In the final 50 pages, especially, as Avery's insomnia causes his behavior to turn wildly erratic and his mother begins to fall in love with one of his fellow sex tour participants, Spencer shows a real flair for screwball comedy; you can't help but appreciate his effort in reviving the sex farce -- a literary genre that rarely gets the respect it deserves.

At one point, as Avery fears he's going to be removed from the group, he launches into one of his prototypical interior monologues: "Kicked off a sex tour? Was I really going to be the first man in the history of sex tourism to be bounced off the trip? I made a couple of wild narrative calculations, trying to imagine how this would not only go into my book but might actually improve it. After all, being kicked off a sex tour was even more extraordinary than going on one."

It's a terrific comic voice -- a mixture of angst-ridden comic incredulity and Jewish fatalism -- and it keeps you willing to stick with this flawed, sometimes frustrating, novel straight to the end.


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