By Hollis Hampton-Jones
(Riverhead Books, $23.95, 182 pp.)
The author appears 6 p.m. May 5 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
These days, we’ve become so overexposed to sex that it’s impossible for all but the most repressed to be truly offended. When it comes to literature, that’s not an altogether bad thing. With all sense of shock numbed, books once considered scandalousHenry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, Nabokov’s Lolitacan be seen for what they are: great works that feature sexuality but whose overarching themes are more complex. In our sex-saturated culture, however, books with one-dimensional prurient imagery can make for a pretty dull read. That’s the problem with Vicious Spring, the debut novel from Nashvillian Hollis Hampton-Jones.
What makes erotic-themed literature different from pornography is that it involves more than bodily function. In Lolita, Nabokov’s depiction of Humbert Humbert is clinical and detachedjust as his youthful nymphet, Lolita, is detached from her nascent sexuality. But the book is about much more than an adult’s sexual obsession with a child. At heart, it’s a mystery, and however nonjudgmental Nabokov may be in regards to his character’s sexuality, he has distinct opinions about the aesthetic power of language, the nature of enchantment, the complexities of time and attachment, and the beauty of the land.
Vicious Spring is Hampton-Jones’ attempt to come to terms with Nashville’s culture of lap dance clubsstrip joints in which customers are provided limited physical contact with dancers for a pre-established fee. In her story, the 19-year-old heroine, Christy, bolts from her dysfunctional family into the questionable solace of addiction, part-time lovers and a career as a lap dancer. Christy approaches life in general, and sex in particular, with a matter-of-factness and detachment that one might cautiously consider typical of 21st century post-adolescence. In the world of erotic dancing, such disconnection is considered a job skill, which Hampton-Jones is quick to point out.
To her credit, the author attempts to maintain a moral and emotional distance from Christythe character’s boredom and the bleakness of her chosen lifestyle are palpable, and Hampton-Jones makes no attempt to redeem her. In the end, however, this disinterest is transparent. After proving particularly adept at a certain sex act, Christy says, “Dad told me this would make guys happy.” Her blasé delivery is designed to shock, but it’s so self-conscious and intentional that it reveals Hampton-Jones’ underlying discomforther need to work through her subject matter.
Beyond a description of a fucked-up home life, Hampton-Jones makes no attempt to account for Christy’s aloofness from the seediness around her. Additionally, there’s no transcendent theme to accompany her character’s descent into a dangerous underworld. Granted, a book is not a carit shouldn’t have to go anywherebut what’s missing from Hampton-Jones’ work is substance. Without it, readers are left with a string of decadent encounters that, arousing though they may be, are not enough to make us care about her characters or keep us interested for 182 pages. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with sex for sex’s saketitillation has its placeit’s just that with Vicious Spring, titillation is all we get.
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