Peyton Amberg

by Tama Janowitz

Published by St. Martin's Press

335 pages, 2003

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Bleak Lust

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Not very far into Peyton Amberg you realize that, though the title character doesn't narrate, the eyes through which she views her world are unreliable. We meet her in Antwerp and we come to understand that she's a tourist, though not the sort that can stay in first class hotels. You have a sense that she's down on her luck, but you're uncertain just how far down. Author Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York; A Certain Age) doesn't leave us in the dark for very long.

At a seedy restaurant, she sees a beautiful young man and determines she must have him.

She was nearly as good-looking as he; always she was the one who was better-looking, usually it would be impossible to find a man who, physically, was her equal -- with her soft, sooty-black hair, her baby eyes sparkling under thick lashes, her figure slim-hipped, full-breasted.

It seems to Peyton that he "looked at her lingeringly" as he passed her. Dragging her suitcase through Belgian streets, Peyton follows him, finally managing to catch up with him at a street corner, where she propositions him.

"Lady, why are you bothering me?" he said. He looked her up and down before he made the bullish sound of a man inhaling his own snot. ... "You must be as old as my mother." ... A half-block away, he glanced back with a sneering grin. "You are older than my mother."

The beginning of Peyton Amberg is, in a way, the end. She was the sooty-haired, baby-eyed woman she still sees in the mirror. But that was a long time ago. What happens in between is what Peyton Amberg consists of. It's not always a comfortable ride.

We meet with Peyton at various stages in her life: as a young travel agent in Boston, living with her crazy mother in an apartment with peeling paint and an air of complete desperation; as the bride of Barry, a dentist who adores her and who she views, at least initially, as a fairly inoffensive way out; as a young matron alone in Brazil, where she falls into her first affair and then, around the world over the next quarter century in a downwards spiral of affairs while she searches for the thing she knows will make her whole. She just isn't sure what that thing might be.

Peyton is reprehensible. She loathes herself, so how can we like her? She was damaged in childhood and there is no way to redeem her. Janowitz doesn't even try. On some levels, we can see her as a metaphor for American womanhood at its very worst: physically very beautiful and the beauty is the only thing that ever gives her power. Even then, the power is fleeting: initially lasting only through an encounter and -- worse -- its a power that diminishes over time.

This visit to Peyton's world is bleak, sometimes depressing and even uncomfortable. It's hard to look at Peyton when she's at her very worst. (And, truly, when she's at her best, she's not so great, either.) At the same time, it's difficult to look away. The train wreck here is Peyton's life though, in truth, it was a journey that derailed before she ever got out of the station. There's only one thing that makes any of this work or even remotely worthwhile: Janowitz is brilliant. In a few strokes she can create fictional realities so vivid, you can feel the grit under your eyes, taste the desperation on your tongue.

Try this passage, describing the Florida bar owned by Peyton's ex-con brother:

It was kind of a rough, honky-tonk waterfront place, no screens, a porch out over the waterway, the air heavy with sodden mosquitoes and their thin bloody whine, and that liquid, chirping Florida night, citrus and salt and boat gasoline. Palmettos and brown dirt and guys with ponytails drinking beer and bourbon, ignoring the women dressed in tight T-shirts, denim, and ruffles. ... Fat children up past their bedtime threw pieces of bread and french fries into the oil-slicked, greasy water, poked sticks through the slits in the floor and at one another, the Tiffanys and Heathers and Jasons who would grow up to take their parents' place at the bar.

Like so many in the book, Janowitz sets this scene so sharply, accomplishing in a few dozen words what might take a less skilled writer several pages.

Janowitz's publishers have repeatedly compared Peyton Amberg to Madam Bovary, as in: "A savvy riff on the classic figure of Madam Bovary, Peyton Amberg is a caustic and brilliant satire of contemporary marriage as it is undermined by free-floating lust and exploits of a woman yearning for fulfillment outside of rigid societal structure." And while the book is certainly caustic and brilliant the rest of the description is about as accurate as saying that Gone With the Wind is about a girl who moves from her home.

For the most part, though she has a lot of sex, Peyton isn't motivated by lust. She just knows that sex is the one thing she has that men want. What Peyton wants is so complicated, she doesn't even try to understand it. On some levels she's like a beautiful little animal: moving forward on instinct, being guided by something, but not really sure what and incapable of determining what it might be. The reader leaves Peyton Amberg unsure of what transpired, but unwilling to forget. | January 2004


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.