“The Parallel Apartments”
by Bill Cotter McSweeney’s Press (February 11, 2014)
Reviewed by David Eric Tomlinson
Bill Cotter’s novel “The Parallel Apartments” is frequently hilarious, often unsettling, occasionally horrific, but almost always entertaining. Justine Moppet – our adopted, pregnant, morbidly depressed, sexually confused, self-mutilating protagonist – flees an abusive relationship in New York, hoping to solve the mystery of her birth. But returning to her funky hometown of Austin, Texas means Justine will have to answer to the same eccentric cast of friends and family members she fled in the first place.
For starters, there’s Justine’s adoptive mother and grandmother, Livia and Charlotte Durant, traumatized by a terrible secret; her peripatetic grandfather Lou Borger, now imprisoned for a crime committed in his drunken youth; Lou’s ailing girlfriend, the ex-prostitute Dot; and the mysterious transvestite Rose, perhaps the only person capable of loving Justine exactly as she is.
This book contains one of the funniest and some of the hottest sex scenes in all of literature. Sex – in all of its variations – is a big theme: sex with friends, family, strangers, prostitutes, rapists, inmates, men, women, children, transvestites, robots and, in one offbeat sequence, even the family dog. Cotter’s characters, Justine included, are almost without exception focused on self-gratification.
But for all of the humping, there is very little intimacy or desire in this story, which is woven with a necessarily darker thread than the tales of, say, a Tom Robbins – where sex can offer freedom, even enlightenment. In this strange parallel universe, everyone is defined by the things she opposes or flees.
The selfishness on display can be off-putting at times. But stick with it and you’ll find a mad genius at work in these pages. Cotter sprinkles his paragraphs with brand names: Dr. Pepper, Falstaff beer, Donettes, Three Musketeers, Smirnoff, Dots, Tootsie Rolls … the list goes on (and on, and on). His characters are inundated with products designed to satisfy some immediate craving. And when the going gets tough, everyone turns to his favorite transitory pleasure for comfort.
The author seems to be saying that in a society where desire is manufactured, packaged, and sold at a discount on every street corner, it can be easy to lose sight of our real emotional needs. The result is a more realistic and profane portrayal of human folly than I have ever encountered. And the visceral denouement (visceral in every sense of that word) forces the reader to feel Justine’s shock and horror upon solving the mystery of her origins.
I’ve never read anything like it before. But in the words of our damaged yet optimistic transvestite Rose, in perhaps the most rewarding sex scene in this book: “Vive la difference.”
David Eric Tomlinson has been a member of the Writer’s League since 2013. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, educated in California, and now lives in Texas. You can learn more about him at www.DavidEricTomlinson.com