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What do Jeffrey Essmann and Tennessee Williams have in common? Not much, frankly. But while reading this short book of Essmann’s erotic Craigslist encounters, I kept thinking of Blanche DuBois and her affinity for disguising the harsh light bulbs in her room with those magical paper lanterns.
I tend to shy away from books which purport to be based in reality. Fiction is much more interesting to me as a reader and challenging to me as a writer. Can I make up interesting people who have depth and can move other readers? What can I do with these people? How can I use them to put the reader where I want him? That’s where the fun of writing lies – it’s the fun of writing lies.
In Life on the List, Essmann has saddled himself with the truth, detailing his accounts of various sexual escapades he has with men who answer his Craigslist ads. These episodes are short on character and long on porn – not that that’s bad. I just think sex writing is more involving when you know the parties. We never learn much about the tricks and even less about Essmann. That may be his way of distancing himself from the material, as is the fact that his eye is always on the humorous spin:
I feel as if I should be more into the whole smooth-Asian thing, but I’m not. Maybe just the whole smooth thing in general, I guess. Ithink I o.d.’d on that guy who was totally smooth. Like: not a hair. Anywhere. He looked like a slave race from Star Trek.
Okay, that’s a pretty funny line. If there had been more lines like this, other problems with the book wouldn’t have bothered me as much. However, even the funny lines are fraught with “thing” and “like” and “totally” – verbalisms which just irritate the hell out of me. It’s speaking, not writing. Writing flows. This sputters.
That said, Jeffrey Essmann is a comedian and a performance artist, which leads me to believe this material is all he claims it to be on the back cover when it’s performed and he can gesture and mug and use his voice to point to the gags. On the page, however, when it’s just him and me, the words often fall flat or fall over themselves in a breathless rush to display their cleverness. They don’t have the pacing or cadence of delivery that an actual performance would provide.
There are spots, however, when Essmann gets it just right.The four pages spent on BklynBody (most of his tricks are referred to by their internet handles) comprise a nice character sketch with blowjob and the whole chapter devoted to a trick named Lou (“The Kiss”) is both sweet and hot, proving my point that the more attention paid to the characters the better thesex is.
Life on the List is only the beginning for Essmann, and I think once he learns to temper the harsh glare of reality with some shading and color, he’ll be a writer to be reckoned with indeed.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler