By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
“No More Mr. Nice Guy”
A book by Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson, a British author, is best known for his wry treatment of the dreams, foibles and struggles of Jewish characters, which has prompted several critics to consider him Philip Roth’s British counterpart. There has been a surge of American interest in Jacobson since he won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Finkler Question.” That novel was published in the U.S. last year and the first American edition of his “The Mighty Walzer,” which came out in the U.K. in 1999, was published earlier this year. Now, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” originally published in the U.K. in 1998, makes its American debut.
Jacobson has long manifested an interest in the dynamics of male-female romantic relationships. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” revolves around one Frank Ritz and his bawdy (mis)adventures with women. (Frank also happens to be Jewish, but aside from triggering a few Yiddish words, his Jewish identity remains low-key.)
Disappointingly, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” proves to be an examination of an already much-covered subject: the male midlife crisis. When Frank, a well-known television critic, is kicked out of his house by his feisty but slightly unhinged common-law wife Mel, a bulimic author of feminist pornography who can’t stand a peep out of her already quiet-as-a-mouse partner, one might think he would celebrate. After all, “[l]iving with Mel has been like living with an Old Testament prophet. She denies him every pleasure. And foresees only disasters.” Frank was not cut out for such mortification. “When all else was said and done, he considered himself to be a Rabelaisian man. He drank, he fornicated, he pigged out, he belched, he farted, he slept, he rose on the arched dolphin back of his dick, ready to breast the wild waves of existence all over again.”
No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Novel
By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages
Frank, in his younger years, would have used this newfound freedom to go on a sex binge. But there’s a problem: His ardor has since cooled. At age 50, he is still obsessed with sex, but more out of habit than desire. And to make matters worse, his misogyny and self-hatred have deepened with time. Without much thought, he falls into a sort of compromise. Instead of chasing women, he travels the English countryside. He visits old haunts, reminisces at length about past affairs as well as his long-gone friendship with Kurt (he had a fling with the poor sod’s wife), looks up former female paramours and male buddies, and even forges an unlikely platonic bond with a chubby female comedian.
Jacobson can be quite funny. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” boasts a few laugh-out-loud scenes of ribaldry, as well as pithy and humorous observations on the male condition. Consider Frank’s resigned acceptance of an eternal dilemma: “Not Solomon in all his wisdom could settle the dissension between the dick and heart.” And Jacobson, describing Frank’s feelings about his occasional sexual objectification, hits upon a major difference between many men and women: “Frank would love to be thought of as cock. ‘I wouldn’t mind a piece of that,’ he once overheard one woman saying to another in a theater queue. If he wasn’t mistaken he was the that she wouldn’t have minded a piece of. He’d never been more complimented in his life.”
But in his quest for laughs, Jacobson too often sacrifices what meager and fast-diminishing likability his selfish protagonist possesses. Frank’s reaction to the discovery that he may have fathered a son—now a young man—during his long-ago affair with Kurt’s wife, Liz, is momentarily funny because of its shocking callousness. But the humor leaves a bad taste in the mouth, because Frank does not follow up his crude irreverence with anything remotely noble. It is as though the author introduces a major plot point purely for its fleeting comic potential. Then, having achieved his purpose, he shunts the matter aside. Comedy is one of this novel’s strong points, but Jacobson cannot always modulate it to good effect.
To see long excerpts from “No More Mr. Nice Guy” at Google Books, click here.
Of course, sex’s literary capacity to titillate or amuse is limited to begin with. Predictably, the repeated and detailed accounts of Frank’s sexual exploits grow tiresome. And the novel’s would-be potent subtext, Frank’s existential angst, cannot compensate for this. Jacobson probably hoped that Frank’s inner torment would provide the story with some dramatic ballast. With so many potentially disturbing and humiliating sexual shenanigans played for laughs, this makes sense. His stratagem, however, falls flat. The deep-seated fears, insecurities and rage underlying the antics of a formerly priapic and still sex-obsessed 50-year-old do not turn out to be original, and ultimately fail to distinguish the story. Despite a measure of humor and several clever turns of phrase, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” must be written off as a puerile comedy-drama masquerading as something profound.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut. His reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Globe and Mail, The Miami Herald, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the San Antonio Express-News, the San Francisco Chronicle and The St. Petersburg Times.