Many of Scott Spencer's eight novels have focused on love, in all of its mystifying complexity. In his latest, Willing, a riotous black comedy, he has abandoned, temporarily at least, that subject for a frank detour into the disturbing world of pure lust.
Avery Jankowsky is a neurotic freelance writer in his mid-30s, whose meager income is supplemented by modest trust fund income from sales of the "Jankowsky Cross," a religious artifact created by the last of his three stepfathers. When his decade-younger girlfriend Deirdre Feigenbaum has an affair, Avery's fragile world implodes. Hoping to repair his nephew's shattered psyche, Avery's Uncle Ezra bestows on him the gift of a sex tour, in which a group of men alight in European capitals to enjoy the companionship of gorgeous, pliant women. The tour becomes even more attractive when Avery is able to sell a book proposal about his experience for a sum large enough to purchase an apartment on the Upper West Side and abandon the claustrophobic one where he still lives uneasily with Deidre.
From the moment he joins the other participants on the Fleming Tours chartered jet, Avery's unease begins to grow. The stories of his companions, each of them willing to pay $135,000 for the experience, slowly and painfully unfold. The men range from a disgraced business executive to a hobbling ex-professional basketball player, but perhaps the most bizarre character is Tony, who filched pennies from a convenience store counter bowl and used them to purchase a $1 million lottery ticket. Avery makes no effort to dignify, or even rationalize, the coarse interaction between the men and high-class prostitutes in Reykjavik and Oslo, and when he finally flirts with physical and emotional collapse in Riga, Latvia, redemption arrives from an unlikely, if familiar, source.
Spencer's sumptuous prose adds much to the pleasure of this novel's provocative, and often disturbing, story. His elaborate and hilarious verbal riffs recall some of Philip Roth's writing at its best. Willing doesn't flinch in exposing one seamy corner of a world where everything can be bought and sold - for the right price.