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Book Review

When Porn and Profit Collide With Smalltown Academic Life

THE MAN WHO WROTE THE BOOK by Erik Tarloff; Crown $23, 288 pages

May 30, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do people still read dirty books when, as the porn publisher in Erik Tarloff's second novel, a satirical romp through Hollywood and small-time academia, observes, even the bluest print must compete with "all those videos out there? With [what] you can download right off the Net?"

Having raised the question, we would expect Tarloff ("Face-Time") to answer it, but in fact he lets it drop. Taking it too seriously might cast doubt on the central premise of his story: that a dirty book written by Ezra Gordon, professor of English at a Baptist college in the San Joaquin Valley, and published by an old friend, Isaac Schwimmer, in Marina del Rey, will not only be thumbed surreptitiously by patrons of adult bookstores, but be propelled by word-of-mouth into national bestsellerdom, with life-changing consequences for all involved.

This same sense of time-lapse--of Tarloff taking aim at targets that by now should have passed out of range--pervades much of "The Man Who Wrote the Book." It doesn't hinder our enjoyment; Tarloff is too good a writer for that. But it leaves a faint, nagging aftertaste.

When the story begins, 35-year-old Ezra, "failed husband, failed father, failed poet, failed scholar," has been warned that he won't get academic tenure. His romance with Carol Dimsdale, daughter of a ferociously conservative college trustee, is going nowhere. His doctor has told him: 'You've reached a stage in your life when things don't have to hurt for a reason anymore. They just . . . hurt. Do you see? You've done your part. And now, nature is through with you."

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In despair, Ezra recalls the joie de vivre Isaac displayed in their college days, and Isaac invites him down for a restorative weekend at an L.A. singles complex. Isaac, it seems, has prospered while Ezra has stagnated. He's surrounded by beautiful women and wallowing in money from the sales of such titles as "Bondage Ho," "Booty Bait" and "Dungeon of Delight." Best of all--and most improbably--he's still a nice guy.

Other improbabilities follow. A pale nerd among bronzed Fabio look-alikes, Ezra somehow attracts Isaac's next-door neighbor, Penthouse centerfold model and aspiring actress Tessa Miles. Tired of the Hollywood trade-off--of making a good living without having a "good life"--Tessa follows Ezra back to Beuhler College. Her amorous talents inspire him to write, in 16 days, the steamy "Every Inch a Lady," which Isaac publishes under the pen name E.A. Peau.

Tessa deserves better than the story gives her. Tarloff himself makes this clear. It's part of Ezra's neurosis that he can't see her as a potential long-term lover rather than an object of giddy fantasy. She is complex, compassionate and wise, yet her function in the plot is to be precisely what Ezra mistakes her for: a wet dream, a muse, a signal to Carol that she needs to loosen up to compete, after which Tarloff shunts Tessa back to where the outrageously endowed belong and leaves the field to "realer" people.

Tarloff also knows better than to oversimplify the issues involved (sex is life-affirming, repression deadly; "therefore choose life"), and to assert that all Ezra needs to do is stop seeing the book as a threat to his miserable job at Beuhler and start seeing it as a ticket to fame and fortune. This is 2000, after all, not 1960.

We know Tarloff knows better because at his best--describing a faculty party or a deconstructionist seminar or a conference with the terrified parents of a Chinese student who wants to chuck engineering for poetry--he's as sophisticated as David Lodge ("Small World") and just as funny.

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