by Adam Thirlwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$25.00 List Price
Adam Thirlwell loves to write about sex. It's is the central activity in The Escape, upholstered—like everything else in this allusive, philosophical, melancholy comedy—in mock-heroic chutzpah. Thirlwell's word choices are showy, his phrasing bravura: "They had sat in the rose garden, in the pale sunshine, a police siren tumescing and detumescing in the background. . . . A tree was leafing through itself, anxiously."
The novel takes place "in the final year of the twentieth century," in a spa town somewhere in the former Czechoslovakia. Its hero, an elderly Jewish banker named Raphael Haffner, has journeyed there from London to reclaim the family villa of his late wife, Livia. The mansion had been "appropriated first by the Nazis, then by the Communists, and finally by nationalist capitalists"—a backdrop that affords Thirlwell maximum opportunity to reflect on history, family, and assimilation.
And sex. Women have always thrown themselves at the willing Haffner, and even at seventy-eight the old goat hasn't lost his touch. At the spa, he cagily woos a young yoga teacher named Zinka while being determinedly pursued by a middle-aged fellow guest named Frau Tummel (Yiddish for "commotion"). Then, his twenty-three-year-old grandson, Benjamin, an obese nudnik whose religious fixations are crumbling before his sexual urges, shows up, giving Thirlwell further occasion for ruminations on family, Jews, and infidelity.
The Escape is a comedy laced with weltschmerz—choking on it. Although the protagonist is a world-class adulterer, the driving force is the primacy (if not the