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A Whoremonger’s Tumble Into Love
Posted on Jul 21, 2011
He knows he might be getting hustled, but he does not really mind. If it turns out to be real, he reasons, it will all be worth it. When he returns home, he starts sending her money, with the understanding that she quit the bar and go to school. He makes another journey, this time to the impoverished backcountry, to ask her father for her hand in marriage. But to his dismay, what would normally be a romantic gesture is no more than a business deal. For $500, he becomes Nok’s husband, guardian and owner. He goes back to New England to prepare for her arrival, and begins a new round of delicious hand-wringing. He imagines the scandal to come. What will the townspeople think? The moment they see him and Nok together, they will know exactly what is going on, who he really is. He realizes, then, that if he wants to have his whore and his reputation too, he must lock her away, keep her separated from the rest of his life.
Such is the alienating power of a secret, and alienation is something that Buber knows well. Born in England, raised in colonial Rhodesia, shunted off to America to avoid the draft, Buber never quite feels at home. He’s built himself a mansion, and it’s perfect, but it’s cold. Its luxury and largeness only underscore his loneliness. His lies have created a barrier between himself and others; with so much that he cannot say, how can he possibly connect? What’s worse, he’s become an observer in his own double life, watching both his respectable and debauched selves through the eyes of his co-workers, his family, his housekeeper, his whore.
It seems fitting that he would look to Nok for salvation. If his most forbidden wish is to inhabit his own life, who better than a prostitute—a penetration professional—to help him break through? He marvels at her ability to be intimate, yet remain separate. “I walk across to her and kiss her and of course she yields, kisses me back, and it is surprising to be confronted so immediately with the intimacy of a stranger. There is something peppery to it, something minty, a touch of sourness. … I lose my heart to her in this instant, to her earnestness, her generosity, her presence. … The part of her that has been most freely surrendered to a host of other men is all she yields. She gestures, leads, shows what I am expected to do, how I am to be serviced, is wary, quiet, almost, one could say, uninvolved. I possess her but it feels that I am in her debt, liable at any moment to feel her disengage, to lose something I never had in the first place. She is there, but she is not there. In short, she submits so entirely that it is as if she is not there at all.”
At times, Schmahmann’s book feels like a mystery novel, and that last sentence is a valuable clue. Is Nok even there at all? As the story unfolds, and Buber unravels, we begin to see that things are not exactly as they appear. In the opening pages, the book reads like a diary; as it progresses, we come to understand that it is a letter. To whom he is writing and why are two things that are not revealed until much later. By then, the only thing we know for sure is that Buber, as narrator, is not to be trusted.
In this fictionalized memoir, the term “double life” has a double meaning. Buber’s double life isn’t just the difference between what he does and what others think he does. There’s also a difference between what he does and what he only fantasizes about doing. It’s a neat trick of language, and Schmahmann deftly pulls it off. He uses verb tenses like a well-oiled time machine, moving seamlessly through Buber’s past, present and future. He bends reality by gliding between indicative and subjunctive moods, blending hard facts—“I was born in Africa”—with things that he might like to do or have done, such as flirting with a co-worker or taking Nok on a ski trip.
If it becomes difficult to distinguish Buber’s fantasies from fact, it also becomes evident that that’s Schmahmann’s intention. It would be impossible to go back and untangle the web, and even if it could be done, it would do the book a disservice. Through Buber’s deceptions, he reveals the truth about human need and frailty, and this truth is so precious—to quote Churchill—that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies. It’s really best to just go with it. Buber may fantasize and deceive, but his story doesn’t disappoint. In the end, Schmahmann has created an unforgettable character whose double life is as outrageous, and as familiar, as one’s own.
Robin Shamburg is the author of “Mistress Ruby Ties It Together: A Dominatrix Takes on Sex, Power, and the Secret Lives of Upstanding Citizens.” She is finishing her second book, “Dungeon Confidential.”
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