The Elegance of Pirates – Polly Trope reviews “The Sex Life of a Comedian” by Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson

I’ve done an awful lot of talking to men in bars, and a fairly common theme of these conversations has been the desire for a threesome, which yet seems unattainable, and also a transient interest in group sex orgies, again, something that most feel they will never get around to doing, because it seems out of their bounds.

Well, Dave Thompson’s novel *The Sex Life of a Comedian* is here to help those customers with copious down and dirty sex scenes. It starts with three “mandatory” sex scenes (given the title) with very little in between, though this is how the main character, a certain Doug Tucker, introduces himself to the readers, and how, also, he introduces — or let’s say, introduces us to the fact he is in the habit of cheating on — his beautiful girlfriend, Sunita. Sunita is always talked about, yet never there, and recedes in the reader’s imagination into the picture of a Virgin Mary. This phenomenon (let’s call it the Virgin Mary effect for just a moment) I know all too well from real life, and used to think it was an important pillar of the broken relationship’s anatomy, that fuels the demand for prostitutes, and/or the demand for meaningless sex with strangers. Cue : the late night conversation with the guy at the bar.

The book’s story line, akin to a road movie yet without quite knowing the destination, passes many faces and places in review, and ends up returning the wonderful Sunita to Doug. Doug is presented very much like an anti-hero struggling to remain faithful to his girlfriend but failing over and over. As it turns out, Sunita has been just as bad as Doug in the relationship.

“I hope you won’t hate me for this, but I’ve been with Arnold and Sunita in your bed” a woman colleague tells Doug in the car, “If you don’t believe me, you keep both volumes of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in the main compartment of your bedside cabinet. There are photos of your mother in the top drawer. I’m sorry, but I’m nosey. This conversation didn’t take place.”
p. 240

So someone has been having threesomes, with Doug’s girlfriend, and it’s not Doug! Shock, horror!

As readers learn through a carefully inserted set of small asides, the main character Doug Tucker grew up in an orphanage throughout his childhood after finding his mother dead in the bath at the age of four.

“Most of my money arrives in the form of cheques in the post, and using Mummy’s knife to release the cheques from their envelopes gives me a feeling that abundance is coming from here. I was so young when she died, my most vivid memory of her is finding her cold body floating in that red water. And this blade is the one that sliced through her veins.”
p. 144

But despite these tough conditions that he was thrown into from a young age, Doug Tucker observes real villains and is time and again awe-struck at their wayward ways. Thus we are introduced to the vices and violent manners of a semi-criminal, semi-gangster comedy and entertainment mogul who, whilst dramatically improving Doug’s career prospects, also brings murder, torture, rape and robbery into the picture. Doug’s success always floats on a light-and-dark island just in between enthusiasm for the job of a comedian, moral doubts about the means to success, and an unquenchable attraction to the glitzy, part alluring part revolting, idiosyncratic culture and society of contemporary pirates.

“Hans leans forward to open a drawer hidden in the electronics console above the navigation table. He removes a black jewellery box, and opens it. Plush maroon velvet lines it, and an old-fashioned syringe with metal trimmings sits in its moulded surround. “A special party cocktail. The best. Don’t worry — I have clean disposable syringes for you two. And fresh needles””
264

All the drug episodes in this book have a magical quality, fairy-tale like quality to them, that only barely gets tainted with the destructive effects of drugs. Destruction is there, a lot of it, but in this book, it rather comes through people and the violence they are capable of, through the use and abuse of power in business, and the use and abuse of physical strength. Besides episodes of filming massive TV shows on set with an all-mafia cast and crew and other portraits of other comedians and stars in showbusiness, the piece de resistance in this book is the tale of a party on a yacht, courtesy of a pair of Dutch brothers and mafia bosses. The day is full of bizarre incidents and one-off characters, its events colourful, and at the same time as unworldly and painfully unfamiliar to most, they also epitomize the compromised marriage of showbusiness with money, its actors, starlets, and outlawed benefactors.

“Since when did you get interested in chamber music, Arnold?”
“When I heard they’re all girls, and that they play in the nude. Apparently the cellist is quite something tae look at.”
“Doesn’t her cello obscure the view?”
“Their instruments are made of transparent Perspex. And the back of the cello’s made of convex Perspex, to magnify her fanny”
p. 153

The sadness of “selling out”, which to some degree has a place in the heart of every performer I am sure, is part of the artistic sensitivity which the protagonist Doug Tucker voices more than once, to deaf ears, as expected; the gang on the yacht have more important business to attend to, and invite Doug along to a diving trip. Yet a strange accident happens, an anchor falls from above in the water, narrowly missing Doug’s body.

“If the yacht above me had dropped its anchor any closer to me, I’d be dead. Using the anchor chain as a guide, I exhale as I rise, and get my second bout of panic. The chain stops at 49 metres, where it’s tied around the feet of a man, who’s writhing in agony and fear. (…) It takes me a few seconds to register this, because the drowning man is in full clown make-up, and still wearing his red nose.”
p. 175

There’s an estrangement factor here in these images, which is so punchy it keeps the reader going through what is actually quite a thick book, full of weird, scary, surreally distorted events from the edge of sanity, and the edge of reality. The character drawing skills are very fine:

“Ruud’s thin grey lips smile in crisp politeness, and he repeats himself. “I must congratulate you on finding the clown and anchor.” My blood freezes and my heart stops.”

The sex part, although I’ve only scratched the surface of that, comes in heavily at many moments and perhaps could be a psychologist’s field day, if someone was to get to the bottom of why some people just do, and others just don’t, have threesomes, and orgies with sex, drugs, and, i gues, comedy. All resolves in Doug’s joining a (gasp!) yoga club, accidentally showing porn to children, being kicked out of yoga, getting dragged into starring in a porn movie, going insane, and, at the very last moment, letting us know that actually, he is already dead.

“The joke will never be heard because I’m no longer a comedian. I’m roadkill”
p. 387

The length of the book allows for characters to re-appear who had previously disappeared and this is a nice touch about the book’s plot, how neatly it is tied up, and introduces an element of sentimentality which the fast pace of the book otherwise would eclipse. Sunita, we hear, dies mysteriously, and resurfaces in the form of a yacht named after her, which ends up saving Doug’s life in the very last quarter of the tale. In the early part of the book, the 1990s part, Doug meets some delicious young girls who are up to no good meeting comedians in hotel rooms after midnight, smoking crack and stealing their credit cards. By the time the book moves on to the 2000s, the twins return — or at least one of them, in the form of a decrepit crack whore:

What’s your name?
Maxine. What’s yours?” Suddenly it clicks. I knew I’d heard her voice before.
“I’m John. Do you have a sister called Melina?” Her tired face drops. She’s got a sore on the side of her mouth I didn’t notice before. I wondered why she was keeping her face to one side.
“I did have. Mel died two years ago”.

 

What I really enjoyed in this book is how the sensitivity and melancholy that creeps up on Doug Tucker is concealed behind simple story telling, lurking in little details rather than being explained to the reader in a heavy-handed, didactic manner or in the form of lengthy descriptions of the main character’s inner feelings. I read this book in a paperback sans book cover image. I really hope Dave soon gets that book cover finalized…

Review by Polly Trope, Hellenist, novelist, and literary critic in the making. Loves an indie street angle on things.
Polly Trope is the author of Cured Meat, available on Amazon as well as other places.

 

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

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