Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Mark Pritchard's New Novel of Sex, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley, December 12, 2009
This review is from: How They Scored (Paperback)
It's been decades since I've read pornographic novels, and I couldn't even finish them. I wasn't yet a teenager: I had secretly found "The Harrad Experiment" and a Henry Miller novel on my parents' bookshelves, but the books' adult, explicit scenarios, though titillating, also disturbed me. Recently, despite my relative sophistication, those early responses came back to me as I began Mark Pritchard's new novel, "How They Scored," which jumps right in with a detailed sex scene featuring the narrator Hap and his girlfriend, then follows it up with another between Hap and the stripper he's picked up on the start of his journey to a gathering of friends.

What is a pornographic novel - a long piece of fiction that strings together sex scenes, an exploration of plot and character, or both? I'd say that the trick to a successful such book is to integrate the pornographic and the novelistic. How They Scored is a diverting read that, by its end, finds a way to do just that.

Its promo says: "'How They Scored' is... about how straight men think and talk to each other about sex. Set among a group of friends as they meet at the remote vacation lodge of a software tycoon to talk about a new business idea, the book also explores issues of privacy and surveillance in the 21st century. Hap... has to decide whether saving his apartment and his love affair is worth mortgaging his soul as the newest employee of Dreedle... selling out the privacy of every individual to the highest bidder. In the meantime, the seven men who convene in a posh mountain retreat fill the days trying to outdo each other's stories of sexual adventure....a journey through the beds of the bohemians of San Francisco and Austin, Serbian fashion models, Las Vegas wheeler-dealers..."

The "stories of sexual adventure" first seemed to me both interesting and off-putting; after all, the very title announces a bragging tone of scorekeeping that made me bristle - as much as I enjoyed Pritchard's dry sensibility, well-made sentences, and apt description of the action. But as the book went on, first-person narrator Hap (and Pritchard) reveals himself as a witty portraitist and self-deprecating observer trying to find his place in a variety of changing social situations, and I understood that the book's title could be taken at more than face value.

Hap unwinds the backstories of each character, dotted with funny descriptions of Silicon Valley types: "He was one of those Unix nerds you run into in the Bay Area, not the fat kind with the beard and suspenders who belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism, but the kind with red hair in a big ponytail who was a polyamorist." And about another character: "He still didn't know anything about software, but that was no barrier to being a good salesperson. All you had to do was... act like you were deeply touched by the prospect of, say, engineering third-generation thin-client customer service applications... For a Communist, he was good at closing deals... he merely used the same mild, friendly attitude as when he bummed five bucks off you, making it difficult to say no."

After the men gather, the plot picks up steam and their interactions increase, with Pritchard quietly portraying a shifting dance of male alliance and competition. Their picaresque sex tales start to cast a subtler light on their characters. The story of the Serbian fashion model ends poignantly. A tale of a threesome takes an unexpected turn, with the storyteller unable to perform, feeling both sentimental about an old girlfriend and ambivalent about the suddenly aggressive behavior of his current one. In short, the scorekeeping of these men becomes less about tallying up sexual conquests and more about assessing their own strengths and weaknesses - and the elusiveness of their desires. And the end of the book redefines scoring for the narrator in a way that's the antithesis of a sexual boast.

Such a heavy dose of straight men's sexual fantasies is new to Pritchard; he's the author of a pornographic novel, "Lesbian Camp Girls," which I somehow missed reading, as well as two diverse collections of short stories about sex, "Too Beautiful and Other Stories" and "How I Adore You," both released in 2001 by Cleis Press. (He also published the erotic zine "Frighten the Horses" from 1990 to 1994, which included my poems in two issues.) I sensed his discomfort with the varying straight male perspectives as the book began, as if he was wondering how much to embrace them, how much to satirize them, and how to find a third path through them. Truthfully, while many readers will find the sex scenes stimulating, the exploration of dot com innovations and intrusions seemed to engage Pritchard more - and struck me as the most entertaining parts of the book.

So buy it and be entertained, whether by a generously varied package of straight males' sexual stories, the maneuverings of the Silicon Valley movers and moved upon, or all of the above.
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