All grief is complex, feeding some facets of the grieving individual’s personality while starving others. Get two grief-stricken, survivor-guilt ridden men together, and they can’t help having problems communicating, and Daniel M. Jaffe illustrates this brilliantly in The Limits of Pleasure, recently reprinted by Bare Bones Books.
Dave Miller, a forty-year-old Jewish bear, is on extended holiday in Amsterdam, recovering from the loss of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who raised him after his parents died in a car accident. He crosses paths with Alexander, a Dutch citizen of Indonesian extraction, who has survived the AIDS death of his partner, Jeroen, and they’re drawn together despite the differences that cause them to repel each other.
A superb writer, Jaffe has a field day with Dave, who has a love/hate relationship with his heritage as well as with his grandmother. Jaffe weaves childhood memories with bathhouse escapades, tawdry alley sex, absurdist rhymes and dirty limericks in a melange of voice, history and philosophy as compelling as it is edifying.
The other narrator, Alexander, is just as interesting if far more distanced and nuanced. Dave is right up in your grill constantly, putting all the gory, vivid details of his sex life and childhood on display but Alexander has a mannered objectivism, all the more intense for its restraint. He never says “I” but uses “One” instead, a wonderful rhetorical device that becomes part of the character the first time Jaffe uses it. Only once does Alexander refer to himself as “I”—one of the most telling moments of the book.
In combination, Dave and Alexander provide some of the most pointed and flat-out sparkling interchanges I’ve read in a while. Dave’s continual sexual innuendo is blunted and effortlessly parried by Alexander’s polite bemusement, yet neither is out-pointed enough to discontinue what seems to be a very barbed friendship on the surface. They get close enough to brush each others’ essential truths before backing off for a breather. The interplay is marvelous. I tried to isolate an example for this review, but the balance is so delicate that nothing I found could typify their exchanges without destroying them.
There are some other sub-plots centered around Dave: his relationship to a boy in the apartment complex where he lives, an encounter with a faux Jew that ends up with Dave undergoing his first HIV test and an extended set piece about an online chat room, and Jaffe uses these to deepen our understanding of Dave as well as to bridge the conversations between Dave and Alexander. It is a testament to Jaffe’s talent that even these sub-plotsnever sag or seem “less than” other parts of the book.
The Limits of Pleasure is a satisfying and thought-provoking read that will echo in your consciousness long after the surprisingly uplifting ending. Jaffe is a major talent, and Bear Bones Books is to be lauded for bringing this wonderful book back into print.
© 2011, Jerry L. Wheeler