Cris Mazza weaves together the stories of a virgin dork, a teenage siren and a pair of pitiable sex slaves in the novel Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls.
Though I tend toward nonfiction, I picked up this book because one of the “various men” is a teacher who has sex with a teenage student (sound familiar? if not, get thee forthwith to Amazon to pick up a copy of my memoir, “The Percussionist’s Wife”). I was curious how an author might handle such a story in a fictional setting.
Set in the mid-2000s with vast flashbacks to the late ’70s, Various Men reads like a memoir (indeed, the foreword reads, “Because this is a true story, I’ve had to change all the names, even my own. The rest is true”). The interplay between the different stories is inspired; the juxtapositioning raises questions about desire and harassment and thoroughly muddies the line between socially acceptable and criminal.
Hester is the main character, the late-blooming dork. Hester. Really, I know. Clearly an obvious reference to the adulterous protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. There are probably other literary references that went over my head, and Mazza’s choice of Cabaret as a major device might reference decadence and heartbreak or it might mean more than that; I’m not sure.
The whole book reads like that, like there’s an inside joke a more astute reader might catch. The conditional verb forms in the flashbacks are awkward and interfere with a compelling narrative, especially in the beginning, but the story climaxes (yes, I just said that) satisfactorily. Though she runs the risk of self-conscious belly button gazing (she admits as much and then writes, “Tell their story, leave your extraneous self-absorption out of it. Please realize: it’s too late now), Mazza successfully explores the nature of sensuality, sexuality and pornography, and she refuses to classify any character in black or white, predator or victim.
Like some of its characters, the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
By the way, I notice Mazza, a Chicagoland author, released a second edition with a new cover last month.