May 2, 2008

Willing” by Scott Spencer

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

When you’re asked to review a novel about a man on a high-priced international sex tour, and the writer is Scott Spencer, a witty connoisseur of obsession and author of “Endless Love,” you cannot help but think it is going to be a wickedly bawdy read. Alas, “Willing,” Spencer’s ninth novel, is oddly prudish.

The narrator, Avery Jankowsky, a 37-year-old freelance writer, has more issues than Woody Allen and has less fun whining about them. Avery only ends up on this all-expenses-paid first-class sex tour because his younger girlfriend, whom he correctly suspects of infidelity, dumps him, and his benevolent uncle sets up the trip for therapeutic purposes, a $135,000 gift.

Still, Avery agrees to go only after he has arranged a book deal based on the tour and can thereby justify it as an assignment, an exposé. Apparently uninfluenced by gonzo journalism, he even tells himself he won’t have sex.

“I’m here just to talk to you,” he says to his first prostitute, a young Icelandic woman named Sigrid who likes money. “Okay? No sex. I want to get to know you; I just want to talk.” Sigrid understandably thinks she’s dealing with a freak.

Spencer, a top-drawer professional, does not seem to fully inhabit his less talented hero. He does, however, provide Avery with several great lines, including this topical doozy: “Being in bed with a whore is like being 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.”

Elliott Spitzer, the famously fallen former governor of New York, naturally comes to mind as Avery attempts to explain the thought process and rationalizations of highly successful men procuring sex. “You gentlemen have worked hard all your lives. You deserve these things. There is no judgment, no punishment, no harm. It is something that has always been. Napoleon, who I learned last week was unable to have sex for more than a minute, he would wait in his tent, and his lieutenants would bring him a woman.”

Fellow travelers with Avery include a former pro basketball player, a business tycoon, an Iraq war veteran and a lottery winner. Spencer may have thought it would be too obvious to add in a politician?

What drives these men remains a mystery to Avery, and to us, but Avery does note some commonalities: “The rich and successful men I had interviewed in the course of hacking out a living had one surprising thing in common: they seemed to genuinely like other people. … The successful people I had met were not only friendly, but seductive. You wanted to be on their team. You wanted to go where they were going.”

Avery Jankowsky is not, unfortunately, one of those people.