Passaro's 'Violence, Nudity' - a startling debut novel

On Books

February 03, 2002|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

From the flood of fiction surging into bookshops, very occasionally an extraordinary new voice emerges. The latest to startle me is that of Vince Passaro, with his Violence, Nudity, Adult Content (Simon & Schuster, 300 pages, $24). Though readers of Esquire, GQ and other such periodicals may be familiar with his short fiction and essays, this is Passaro's first book, a novel of unusual energy and intensity.

The novel is a three-part fugue, narrated from the vantage point of a lawyer on the verge of rising from associate to partner in an aggressive Manhattan law firm. He is Will Riordan, smart and brash, yet writhing in personal agony: The enchantment of his marriage has been deadened by the burdens - the exhaustion - of being father of two baby boys.

The second plot line rises from a civil case to which his firm has assigned him as co-counsel, a tort suit against a negligently operated, expensive apartment building in which the plaintiff had been tortured and raped.

In the third element, Riordan helps defend Ron Adamson, a major client - a neurotic, brutally selfish financial highflier who is charged with uxoricide.

Superficially, the book could be taken as classic noir crime fiction. There are such echoes: Passaro draws on grand old movie lines; there is edgy toughness in the narrative first person; New York City is presented as a sort of burlesque-purgatory backdrop. The title is a play on slight, sleazy entertainment - though there is no small amount of violence, nudity and adult content. But there's more to the book, much.

On their primary levels, each of the interwoven stories becomes an exploration of the will to kill: Near-homicidal rages torture Riordan and his wife, Ellie, as each becomes more deeply isolated in despair. The rape victim is a brilliantly expressive African-American young woman named Ursula who has grown up wealthy, privileged and spoiled. Now, expressing herself in often rambling but brilliant e-mails to Riordan, she is obsessed by the idea of finding and killing her tormentor. In the third element, no reader will doubt that the client actually killed his wife, but his evasion of prosecution is convincing and even grimly inevitable.

Each of the three elements is carried forward by its own suspense. None becomes entangled with the others - except as competitors for Riordan's consciousness. The effect is to provide an exploration of the essence of human rage and despair - an examination of the capacity of otherwise rational and in some cases convincingly decent people to be willing to kill.

Midway through Passaro's book, it is clear that exploration is the heart of the novel. If a defining purpose of serious literature is to reveal the essential experience of a human life at its most complex, most inaccessible, this book must be taken as serious.

But never ponderous. Passaro's pace is crackling, electric. His command of language and his surgical imagery are masterful. Excerpting less than several pages doesn't capture it. But here, in the midst of a celebration of New York at the end of a killing spell of 100-degree days, is one snippet that is at least suggestive:

"Tourists, weary and oblivious of their bright clothes, stand like escapees from a Midwest shtetl, lined up to board the boat to Ellis Island, individual reversals of history. Their skinny children, uniformly in long, loose shorts and tank tops, suggestive of an entire nation, beginning somewhere in western Jersey and running uninterrupted to the Pacific, that wears nothing but gym shorts and tank tops and cuts its hair, boys and girls alike, short on top and scraggly down the neck, dash in and out of the forest of legs; the out-of-town parents fret after them, fearful of the city, the authorities, various unnamable dangers. The wind lifts the grit of ages from our pores."

In the same manner, Passaro delights in presenting New York as a dynamic and dismaying major character. "I like old restaurants," he writes, then plays deliciously with New York's - and the food world's - affectations: "Maybe a new restaurant in Central Park. Restaurant dans le parc. The waiters will all have that voice, like everything-is-a-question voice: 'Hello, my name is Kurt? I'm your waiter for tonight? Tonight's special is Central Park frog slightly roasted over chips of old Upper East Side furniture, mostly walnut and fruitwood? For entrees, we have Harlem bass from the Meer, in a Dairy Queen vinaigrette, with fresh chervil and California garlic, or blackened squirrel, also from Central Park, skewered with giblets intact, dipped in a light tempura batter and crisped over an oil can fire by three homeless men? Would you like to start off with a drink?' "

These passing entertainments relieve and mitigate the tough stuff. Riordan is in continuing examination of himself, of his needs and personal meaning, and the meaning of relations with others, including his alienated wife, his two small children, his colleagues. He is analytic, observant, but can be intensely narcissistic.

Ursula's e-mails become

increasingly disturbing - veritable streams, or screams, of


Ron Adamson's a powerful human without an ounce of ethic or principle - his evasion of justice underscoring the fallibility not only of humans but also of the criminal justice system.

The book ends with resolutions of all three major story lines, but by then they have become almost ornaments. The novel's core is redemption of life as having meaning. For all my unyielding respect for nonfiction - for history, reporting, biographical pursuits, serious essays and memoirs - none competes with literary fiction in pursuing the truth and in opening the heart.

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