“Let me put it this way: this is how much I think about sex,” explains Cole, the 17-year-old sort-of hero of Daniel Handler’s new adult novel, “All the Dirty Parts.” “Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.”
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has known — or has been — a teenage boy. The psyche of the adolescent male is permanently occupied with all things lewd and lascivious. There might be temporary pauses involving sports championships and illicitly acquired alcohol, although these are relatively rare.
Cole takes his fixation to a bit of an extreme. Not yet out of high school, he’s had sex with 11 girls. Why? “Because I’m on an adventure. I’m not happy ever after with my first girl. You don’t see a movie and say, well now I’ve seen a movie. You see different ones. You try them and keep trying.”
“All the Dirty Parts” is the story of Cole’s quest to conquer Girl No. 12, and it’s an unexpected and shocking novel from the author who is best known as the children’s author Lemony Snicket.
Handler’s new novel couldn’t be more unlike the books he wrote under his famous pseudonym. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was marked by Handler’s winkingly ornate prose and neo-gothic whimsy; “All the Dirty Parts” is spare, stripped down and devoid of anything twee. It’s a fascinating, profane book that somehow succeeds on its own merits.
We don’t learn all that much about Cole, at least, initially. He’s a typical underachieving high school student, although one with, as his friends keep reminding him, a reputation for being promiscuous. He spends his spare time having sex with girls, attempting to do same, or watching Internet pornography with his best friend Alec.
But his life is thrown into disarray when he finds two new lovers. The first is Alec — after a few times masturbating next to each other, their physical relationship escalates. Cole tells himself it’s nothing serious (“Prison, guys do it in prison in the same situation”); he becomes alarmed when he starts to think that Alec doesn’t feel the same way.
Everything changes, though, when Cole meets Grisaille, who has moved to the boy’s town from Portugal. She’s funny, bold and, to Cole, exotic — her failure to shave her armpits throws him for a not-unhappy loop — and well aware of Cole’s reputation. They soon become passionate lovers, and Cole describes their every encounter with an almost breathless disbelief.
“There are love stories galore, and we all know them. This isn’t that,” Cole warns us at the beginning. “The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” Handler delivers on this promise; although not every scene is explicitly sexual, they’re all at least sex-adjacent. The sex scenes are more than merely clinical, but never florid — the novel, after all, is narrated by a porn-addled teenage boy.
It’s an interesting experiment: The reader is left to connect the dots, to fill in the parts of the story that Cole has elided for not being sufficiently sexual. Handler drops just enough hints for us to do just that, and the portrait that results is quietly heartbreaking, though often hilarious. (When Grisaille asks Cole whether he has a favorite German poet, he replies, “Let me answer for everyone you will ever meet in this town, no, we don’t have favorite German poets. We have favorite dinners and beers.”)
It’s difficult to create a fully formed character with the strictures Handler has imposed on himself, narrative fragments from a sex-obsessed high school student. But Cole turns out to be a multifaceted character. It helps that Handler perfectly captures the staccato rhythm of teen-speak; none of the dialogue comes off as inauthentic at all.
He has sexual compulsions, but he’s not completely oblivious. He listens when his platonic friend Kristen warns him about his worsening reputation, even if he doesn’t heed her advice. He’s frustratingly cavalier about how his behavior might come back to haunt him: “Someday you’ll learn your lesson, maybe eight girls have said to me. But most of them got naked.”
Despite his studied carelessness, Cole is unprepared for the emotional distress he finds himself in at the novel’s end, and it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him. “We are monsters with it,” he admits. “Told you, told you. I am saying this to myself. Are we good, no we are … not.” Handler treats the teen with compassion and resists turning the book into an easy cautionary tale; there’s no moralizing at the expense of his suffering.
That’s not to say it’s an amoral book; it’s not. But Handler doesn’t condescend to his young characters, and he doesn’t offer any easy lessons. “All the Dirty Parts” is a shockingly original novel — readers might be reminded of Philip Roth’s famously raunchy “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but while Roth’s novel ended with a punchline, Handler’s ends with a gut punch. Parents of teenagers might be wary of the language and content, but it deserves to be read widely, and not just by adults — it’s one of the most original and realistic depictions of the sex lives of young people to come around in a long time.
Schaub is a writer who lives in Texas. He’s on Twitter at @michaelschaub
Bloomsbury: 144 pp., $22