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In ‘Vladimir,’ a woman’s desire takes her to dangerous places

The first three pages of Julia May Jonas’s debut novel, “Vladimir,” are so provocative that it would be a spoiler to describe them if they came later in the book.

Actually, the excitement begins on the cover, designed to drop jaws: a close-up of the torso of a seated man in a deep green corduroy shirt unbuttoned to reveal his chest and abs. His louche slouch, the gold chains at his neck and wrist, the chest hair and, most of all, the hand draped casually over his crotch — there’s no mistaking the subject of this novel, which is desire.

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The plot revolves around the fallout from accusations of sexual misconduct against the unnamed narrator’s husband, who is chair of the English department at the college in Upstate New York where they both teach. The couple has long had an open marriage, but that was not public knowledge. The encounters in question were all before the rule against faculty-student relationships, but no one seems to care. Both spouses feel uncomfortably exposed; he is suspended from teaching pending a hearing.

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But the prologue does not bring us those details. Instead it introduces the narrator and a situation we won’t encounter again for a while. Though the narrator is nameless, the fellow on the cover is surely Vladimir himself — Vladimir Vladinski, in fact — a hunky new hire and novelist on the rise. The allusion to Vladimir Nabokov, legendary king of the desire section of the library, is confirmed in the arresting first sentence: “When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.” It’s “Lolita,” if Humbert Humbert were the object and the young girl and her libido were in charge.

Jonas, who is a playwright and professor at Skidmore College, has described several of her works for the theater as inspired by “canonical male experience plays.” This point-of-view conversion seems to continue here. The intriguing titles of these plays — among them, “We Used to Wear Bonnets & Get High All the Time” and “Untitled Zoo Story Project (Autosaved)”share the cleverness and current sensibility that infuse the novel. Even before covid, the economic difficulties of the theater appeared to be inspiring playwrights to write novels; if this is what has given us “Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar, “We Play Ourselves,” by Jen Silverman, and now “Vladimir,” it’s a silver lining.

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Back to page one. The narrator goes on to explain that she still has old-mannish proclivities and interests, jazz, blues, muscular writers, depravity, card games and war stories among them. “What I like most about old men now, however, and the reason I often feel that perhaps I am an old man more than I am an oldish white woman in her late fifties (the identity I am burdened with publicly presenting, to my general embarrassment), is that old men are composed of desire.”

These are the forces so problematically twinned in our narrator — on one hand desire, on the other, vanity and shame about aging. This comes up repeatedly as she swathes her neck in scarves and regards herself with disgust. Her upper arm, "flesh hanging like a zip-lock bag half-filled with pudding." Her breasts, always "more conical than globular, and which now, on a bad day, looked nearly phallic." (It’s surprising to see that Jonas is decades younger than this narrator; she certainly nails it.)

As ashamed as she is of her body, she is also ashamed of being ashamed. After spending hundreds of dollars on an anti-cellulite treatment and spray tan before receiving Vlad and family for a pool party, she ends up covering the whole mess with a rash guard and flowing pants. "Enraged at my vapidity, I forced myself to sit down and read several articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books before I fixed my nighttime drink."

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Back to the Prologue. We learn that the opening riff on old men and little girls was written while gazing upon Vladimir sleeping. "He is asleep in the chair, and the hair on his left arm (the one that I have not shackled) glows in the late-afternoon sun."


The next thing that happens, oddly and charmingly, is that the narrator goes off into a brief daydream about a set of initials carved into the chair, which came from an old beer hall, imagining an anecdote about a gay couple and the role of this chair in their relationship. The lightning-quick fantasy detours are an ongoing pleasure of the novel, one of the elements that makes you love the narrator despite her pesky streak of awfulness.

She has you in the palm of her hand at this point, and you are not going anywhere except Chapter One. It’s here that she first meets Vlad and immediately relays the intimate details of her family’s current predicament. When he appears disgusted by her frank acceptance of her husband’s infidelity, she tells us, “He was red in the face, and perturbed. He reminded me of some New England preacher from the nineteenth century—a transcendentalist Unitarian with strict principles. He seemed vegan. I liked it. I liked his arrogant anger."

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This narrator knows her own mind, trusts her own judgment, and often dispenses her opinions as truisms. To wit: The most handsome men live in the country, while the most beautiful women live in the city. No cigarette is better than the one that follows a torrential cry. A good steak should have no seasoning other than salt and pepper, and any tomato sauce is better with anchovies and olives. Truth in art can only be found outside the confines of morality.

Jonas’s narrator is a work of art in herself, with at least one foot on the wrong side of #MeToo. You wouldn’t want to let that stop you.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”


By Julia May Jonas

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $27

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