Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, February 16, 2003

"11 Karens" by Peter Lefcourt

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

While the memoir emerges as the favored form of our time, Peter Lefcourt has chosen to tell his life story the old-fashioned way. He calls it a novel.

The author of "The Dreyfus Affair" and "Di and I" apparently led quite the bacchanal life, but this is probably not atypical of a writer coming of professional age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lefcourt distinguishes himself with a high-concept conceit: Eleven of the significant women in his life were named Karen. He states that the odds against this are 29,976-to-1. I presume he made this up.

While this framing device may seem far-fetched, each of the Karens he describes has the ring of only slightly exaggerated truth. There's precocious fifth-grade Karen, high-school-slut Karen, nudist Karen, Italian Karen, Lolita Karen, prostitute Karen, suicidal-poet Karen, indifferent Canadian Karen, strip-Scrabble Karen, nutty-actress Karen, and married Karen who lied about her name and turned out to be a Rhonda.

Though each Karen is a type, Lefcourt recalls details that bring them fully to life, and his abiding affection for them is clear and genuine.

"Karens, wherever you are, if you read this, forgive me the liberties I have taken with our stories. I have loved you all, briefly perhaps, imperfectly perhaps, but without design or dissimulation."

This is not a novel of sexual conquests but an unpretentious and very funny telling of a writer's apprenticeship and the profits and costs of his sexual explorations along the way.

In the book, the Lefcourt character turns to writing pornography. In life, Lefcourt fell further. He wrote for television. Sometimes it shows in the way he rushes the story along, groping for the punch line.

While the amorous episodes are played for laughs, the chapters accumulate a surprisingly weighty sadness as each affair ends in hapless satisfaction, and it becomes clear that all are destined to end that way. Perhaps unconsciously, Lefcourt has constructed a morality tale about the emptiness at the end of carnal pursuits.

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Mark Lindquist