No More Mr. Nice Guy
- Howard Jacobson
- Bloomsbury USA
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
- September 28, 2011
From a prize-winning British novelist, a wildly funny romp with a sex-obsessed TV critic.
Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2010; his novel The Mighty Walzer won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the only award given for comic literature in the U.K., in 2000. His novel No More Mr. Nice Guy was released in the U.K. in 1998 and did not win either of these awards. No More Mr. Nice Guy is a snarky sex comedy, clever and often very funny; profound it is not.
Frank Ritz, the novel’s central character, is a television critic who despises what he watches. His partner, Melissa Paul, writes pornographic novels for liberated women, and Frank despises her work, too. As the book opens, she’s throwing him out. The noise from his at-home office is part of the problem, with beepers, fax machines and the television going all day, although her recurring bulimia would indicate she may have other issues.
Frank leaves, and goes on the prowl for sex, which has been his habit and obsession as long as he can remember. “But what happens,” the book blurb plaintively asks, “when sex is all you know and yet no longer what you want?”
Frank is 50, and the unforgiving reader might think that he could have developed another hobby by this time. Within a few pages, though, as he’s zooming onto the motorway heading west, hogging the fast lane and making obscene gestures at those who object, “the lone rager … [with] that old truant sensation of release from homework in his heart,” the reader is looking forward to a rollicking ride. Jacobson gives it, with a sharp eye, trenchant humor and zinging, singing writing.
Along the way, Frank reminisces about his first encounter with a prostitute, who offered him oral sex and then told him that, for extra money, she’d do it with her teeth out — and she does. The scene is laugh-out-loud funny, and the incident has made Frank an aficionado of street whores. Sometimes he still looks for that first one, wondering if she just went out one night because she was fed up with housework and a little short of grocery money. There are good throwaway lines: “She says tomato, and he says she’s missed the point.”
After a while, though, it wears thin. The irony of the book’s title is that there is no evidence that Frank has ever been a nice guy at any time, and we see him commit not a single act of kindness or charity. He does think about it, once: he sees an elderly woman, who “peers out at him from the alien world of the underprivileged,” and she’s trembling “as much out of the perplexity of her class as the infirmity of her age.” She has a young boy with her, and Frank thinks the kid will grow up to be either a doormat or a criminal. Frank drops a pound coin on the way out the door, and they bring it to him. He thinks a moment about rewarding them with the coin, reasoning that it would mean a great deal to them, and nothing to him. He keeps the coin. He recalls how he spent a sexy weekend in Paris with a friend’s wife, and told an acquaintance all about it. The acquaintance told the couple, and Frank is dismayed and a little surprised that the couple want nothing more to do with him.
There’s no reason for Frank to be too nice, though; nasty is often funny, and that’s rarely true of nice. By about two-thirds of the way through, however, Frank has become something worse than nasty, at least for a fictional character: he’s boring. He tells himself that the reason he has sex with any woman he can catch is the same reason he watches programs he despises: he is after the feeling of shame that he gets afterwards. Such people make interesting specimens, but dreary companions, and dreary is what Frank becomes.
The book reads quickly, and is likely to be enjoyed most by people who are already Jacobson fans. The British English may be a barrier at times, such as when he writes about a chemist’s shop being the next door but one to a chippy. A reader who thinks this is a sentence about a scientist and a trollop rather than a drugstore and a fish-and-chip shop will get lost fairly quickly, as will someone who doesn’t realize that when Frank talks about his “chinas” he means his buddies. The sex scenes — and there are many — are wild and often wildly funny, and the language in those is the same in both cultures. No More Mr. Nice Guy could be a great weekend read when the kids are away.
Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant. A resident of Silver Spring, Md., and a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years, she has completed her first novel, “Scandal’s Child,” a historical novel, partly set in Baltimore in the late 1850s, whose central character is the fictionalized daughter of a real person.