In Willing, Scott Spencer’s slyly engaging novel, journalist Avery Kaplan Kearney Blake Jankowsky joins a pricey worldwide sex tour—merely as a reporter of course. Jankowsky, trying to maintain his decency, is asked, “You’re offered a chance to have sex with some truly spectacular individuals, who’s going to say no to that?” Not Jankowsky, it turns out. At an orgy, he drops all pretense of journalistic and human ethics, proclaiming: “You can’t always care about right and wrong. You just do the bad thing. It happens. To all of us.”
Indeed. Avery’s dilemma mirrors readers’ unsettling experience of being thrust into a seductive world where it’s all too easy to be bad, difficult to be good, and nearly impossible to know the difference. We are drawn into the story, becoming voyeuristic participants in this tour that “dares not speak its name,” buying our way into a sordid netherworld where everything is for sale. Sure, the novel only costs $24.95, a far cry from the $135,000 price tag for the deluxe sex tour, but it’s still a pay-to-play transaction. So we, too, dear readers, may come to recognize our kinship with the wealthy, self-indulgent sex-tourists that Avery describes as “Hyde without the Jekyll, Hyde forever. Hyde infinitum.” On this trip, we willingly enter “a state of double and triple thinking. Being in bed with a whore is like being a press secretary for a president. You believe his story even when you know it’s not true, and you also believe in his right to lie.”
That sort of stinging analogy is one of the disarming charms of this novel. No matter how discomfiting the content, the intelligence of the writing dispels misgivings. The language itself is an addictive pleasure. A bit character is described as having “eyeglasses with turquoise plastic frames that might be worn by a librarian on a distant galaxy.” This odd and vivid image is not just a great throwaway line. Later, we see that Jankowsky, too, is like a space traveler, so far has he gone. The mineral baths in Iceland are “lunar,” otherworldly. Eventually, Avery loses even his humanity, slipping into a “ferocious animal nature.” By the end of the novel, Avery baldly states (to his mother, of all people), “I’m an animal…I believe in my body.” But even Avery’s bodily experiences are questionable. He’s suffered a severe head injury; he never sleeps; he’s always bleeding. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
In a book with so many witty twists, it’s easy to become as ethically dizzied as Avery himself, and as thoroughly seduced. Only when the afterglow fades might we recall that Avery, who told us that he charms potential girlfriends with the sad tale of his mother’s four marriages and his ever-changing last name, starts this sad tale with the line “I was the man who had had four fathers.” That Avery sells a memoir that begins with “I have had four surnames” to Esquire, and plans to sell his tell-all sex tour book for a whopping sum. That Avery is always selling his story. That Avery is one tricky guy.
So is Scott Spencer. The Rhinebeck author’s previous works include Endless Love, Waking the Dead, and A Ship Made of Paper. This time around, the novelist hailed by Publishers Weekly as “the contemporary American master of the love story” has written a masterful lust story. Most certainly, Spencer knows the difference between love and lust. So does Avery; so do we. But sometimes, lust happens. To all of us.
Scott Spencer will read at Merritt Books in Millbrook April 5 at 4pm.