Six years ago, the Canadian author Clancy Martin made a splash with his autobiographical novel How to Sell, based on the hard-drinking years he spent as a jewellery salesman before going to college and beginning the brilliant academic career he currently enjoys as a philosopher. Now he has come up with a weird, densely focused novella about an adulterous affair being pursued by an alcoholic female writer, who is the one doing the narrating. It’s beside the point to wonder if this too is autobiographical. In his acknowledgements, Martin thanks the people who ‘together convinced me to rewrite what began as a memoir into fiction’. As ever, there is incidental interest in wondering how and where that transformation has been achieved, and if the author is in complete conscious control of the process.
Brett — the name’s gender-ambiguity is remarked upon on at one stage — is a hugely esteemed novelist. She is married to a colossally successful real-estate developer called Paul, who is extending his portfolio of luxury hotels throughout Central America. They live in Mexico City and both are on second marriages. Brett is a reasonably successful stepmother to Paul’s sons from his previous relationship; she also has to deal with Paul’s needy, childlike, pathetically boozy old father.
But Brett is bored. She has quit drinking, which has caused her creative juices to dry up. So she is ripe for adventure on meeting Paul’s suave banker Eduard, a lethally handsome man resembling Benicio Del Toro, and begins a crazily indiscreet affair with him. Their marathon sex sessions
reignite her destructive passion for alcohol, and Brett gets her writerly mojo back:
I wrote a story about a man who kills a Mexican prostitute. Then I wrote one about an effeminate old man who falls in love with a 20-year-old. I sent them to my agent and she placed them immediately. She wrote: ‘Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t stop.’
The joy of sex and the joy of booze are as one — and then they become the opposite of joyful.
At first, what is so strange about Love in Central America is how very little observational detail it gives. There is almost nothing about the texture of life in Cancun, Mexico City, Nicaragua, Miami or any of the novel’s casually invoked locations. Nor any ambient scraps of Spanish dialogue in italics.
Paul and Eduard and Brett are of course super-rich, gangster-rich. Yet Brett never reflects explicitly on this fact, or on how her husband’s wealth has taken her to a material league way beyond that which even a successful novelist might enjoy. We are just enclosed, almost claustrophobically, in the only thing of interest to Brett — her obsessive, addictive, self-harming world of illicit sex — and the prose is stripped down to chapters so short they could almost have bullet-points. There is something compulsive about the sheer unsexiness of what is happening.
It ends badly, of course. Paul and Brett are supposed to have met at a film studies course on Almodóvar, of all people. Her toxic affair with Eduard reads more like a cross between Nabokov and Joe Eszterhas. How does it relate to the author’s own life? Who can tell? But it reads as if a gland of unhappiness has been drained.