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Alternatives to Sex

Stephen McCauley completely cracked me up on page 5 of his new novel, Alternatives to Sex.

As I was going over my shirt for the second time, I figured it would be easier to stick to my sex resolution and break a bad habit if I kept myself busy. I'd recently turned forty - and more recently than that had turned forty-four.

Mr McCauley is a master of comic timing. It isn't that what happens in his novels is so funny; it's his narration that's side-splitting. He doesn't go in for the outrageous behavior that one finds in Patrick Dennis's novels, but then he doesn't have to: he has taken Dennis's comic voice and made it his own. Consider this masterful introduction:

Marty was Edward's friend, someone I'd always disliked and felt in competition with. Marty exerted an unhealthy degree of influence over Edward. Edward was susceptible to the influence, not wholly benign, because Marty was his idea of rugged, strutting masculinity: a retired marine who'd served in the first Iraq debacle in the early 1990s and then started a business that Marty (and Edward, Marty's mouthpiece) claimed was raking in several hundred grand a year. In terms of domineering personality, unapologetic machismo, and bulky muscularity, Marty would have been a perfect lover for Edward. Unfortunately, for the sake of Edward's romantic prospects, Marty was a woman. Martine, in fact. A stocky African-American woman from Arkansas with the captivating voice and precise articulation of a Shakespearean actress.

Behind the surprise of Marty's gender lies a world of information and attitude. William, the narrator, doesn't like competing with Marty for Edward's attention. Is there a message here that perhaps the narrator himself isn't picking up? As a put-down, "mouthpiece" is tinged with an affection that amplifies William's labile ambivalence about his friend. And William is just a bit too sure of what Edward is looking for in a lover when he insists that Marty, who is everything that William is not, would be perfect if only she were a man.

Continue reading about Alternatives to Sex at Portico.


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