These are hard times for the American male, and Dan Greenburg isn't making them any easier.
For decades we have been suffering from a literary and cinematic surplus of masculine wimps, pathetic but lovable losers dominated by strong females and cringing at social forces. From "Goodbye, Columbus" to "Reinhart's Women," from "The Graduate" to "Shoot the Moon"--and with no thanks to Neil Simon, Woody Allen or George Segal--we have squandered an inordinate portion of the GNP in underwriting this national Schlemiel Syndrome.
And just when the whole obsessional glut was threatening to expire of simple inanity, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the locker room, here comes the 11th book by veteran satirist Greenburg, who raises the domestic schlemiel to a new low. Imagine a Bruce Jay Friedman character at large in a Kurt Vonnegut landscape, and you have the measure of his method.
At the story opens, Lance Lerner (caution: symbolic names ahead), a popular free-lance writer, is on the eve of his 40th birthday and facing a ghastly epiphany. His wife Cathy, he believes, is having an affair with his best friend. In retaliation, Lerner vows to seduce her best friend, Margaret. It appears that he will succeed. The would-be lovers repair to Margaret's apartment and she coyly steps into the bedroom. Lerner "starts to knock, stops, has a better idea. He slips out of his shirts, slacks and undershorts." Stark naked and visibly aroused, he raps at her bedroom door.
" 'Here I come, ready or not!' he calls.
" 'Come on in,' says Margaret in a strange, high, possibly ambivalent voice.
"He turns the knob and walks into the darkened bedroom.
"Blinding lights. And 40 people yell: 'SURPRISE!' "
This passage is entirely representative of the nearly 400 pages that follow, and answers a number of critical questions immediately. First, if that is your idea of rib-wrenching humor, you will find this good-hearted, hard-working novel "rollicking" and "hilarious," both of which it is bound to be called. Second, it shows that Greenburg, whose prose interest is in rhythm, not diction, does not scruple over a cliche'. And finally, it indicates why it is unfair to reveal too much of the plot, which relies exhaustively on such pratfall set-ups.
Lerner's birthday-suit debacle leads to his separation from Cathy and a growing awareness of his problems. "Men have been getting really bad press," Lerner tells his psychiatrist. "They say we're selfish lovers, they say we're insensitive to women's needs. . . . Well, probably all of that is true. I've become a selfish and insensitive and unimaginative lover, and I didn't used to be."
He's not just tired, he's confused: What, he asks--echoing the Freudian question that gives the book its title--do women want in this age of sex-role derangement? To answer this connubial conundrum, Lerner is obliged to confront his deep antipathy toward women (he "probably truly believed that having sex with women put you on a cosmic conveyor belt that led inevitably to death") as well as his male dependence on them ("Having a woman manipulate them reminds them of their mommies," says Cathy. "And if they're being manipulated, they don't have to take responsibility for their actions"). That confrontation sends him on a 118-chapter schlepstick quest from East Side Manhattan into the heart of feminine darkness. Along the way, he encounters:
* A hefty foursome of homophobes who begin as a female moving company called the Mothertruckers, but soon become MATE (Men Are the Enemy), whose terror tactics give Lerner's travels their shape.
* A voluptuous lamia, Claire Firestone--wife of Lerner's publisher--whose degrading sexual exploitation of the author becomes a sort of mini-allegory of the book business.
* A pair of young black felons, Goose Washington and Ernest Hemingway Roosevelt, who parlay their robbery of a B. Dalton bookstore into media celebrity through the slogan "Free the Dalton Two" and the knee-jerk support of such fictional/historical characters as Johnny Carson. (There are dozens more "real" names usurped to no particular end. Hasn't this tiresome trend gone far enough?)
* Gladys Oliphant, an enormously fat and lascivious recluse who contrives to rape Lerner--thanks to the kinky ministrations of Stevie, a policewoman with a huge groupie hunger for literary society.
* And Mamma Doc Taillevent, 66-year-old president-for-life of Mannihanni, a banana matriarchy with male slavery and a bloodthirsty religion.
Plenty of promising material, certainly. But even schlemiel-fanciers may find obstacles to the enjoyment. By relying on slapstick plot staples and aiming at such time-honored targets as airline food, talk shows, Jewish guilt and group therapy, Greenburg often gives his gags a sit-commy de'ja vu, the same sinking sense you feel when somebody starts telling a dirty joke you heard years ago: You can't recall the details, but you remember the punch line just as it is delivered.
Moreover, as the narrative approach alternates uneasily between satirical fantasy and the more realistic love story of Cathy and Lance, the passive Lerner is so constantly acted upon that he becomes the least-developed character in his own book. This is a difficulty endemic to anti-heroic fiction (think of Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis), where the protagonist appears to exist only as an excuse for demeaning things to happen.
But ultimately Greenburg is in such good-natured earnest that his book becomes an upbeat, salutary fable, sharing the same psychic purport as fairy tales in which the prince has to kiss the aged crone, or the princess buss the warty frog, and bearing a moral summed up by Lance's psychiatrist: "If you can't feel the hostility . . . then you'll never be able to feel the love."