(Tin House Books, 2011)
The straight male fantasy of suburban, upper-middle-class affluence (dutiful wife, two-plus kids, multi-car garage, Saturday soccer practice, etc.) upends itself in John Franc’s stunt of a novel, Hooked. The tale of how the book was published almost upstages the fiction itself: a well-established writer embarked on a book he felt was too close to a memoir to submit under his own name. Thus, debut novelist “John Franc.” Mere pages into this thriller, the reader will understand the author’s reasons for using a pen name.
Narrated by a collective of voices, never naming names, a group of men enlivens family errands and office lunch breaks with visits to a plethora of brothels in their anonymous, urban city. Fascinated by the intricacies of the sex trade, and buoyed by this walk on the gritty side of town, these fathers and husbands bond with each other over financial transactions, bargain-hunting, “girl” preference, and the details of their alibis. Like prospective lovers, these men start prizing one over the other, breaking off into pairs and trios to scout the latest new place they’ve “heard about” to find the newest, and most interesting, girls on which to spend their lunch hour and money.
The wives are oblivious, their daughters are self-obsessed, and the money continues to flow in, so why not? Franc’s use of the second-person collective narrator gives the novel a hard, removed quality that nonetheless reveals startling honesty and a harsh clarity about the appeal of this kind of double life:
Perhaps that was why having a secret life was so attractive to so many people. Widening your life like this was the closest anyone was going to get to immortality, and the risk was if you got caught or surrendered you narrowed to less than a life.
Like the offspring of a bromance between Leonard Michaels and Jeffrey Eugenides, the voice of these men softens as the risks get bigger and their behavior grows sloppier, but it never quite melts. What is so fascinating about Hooked is how determined these men are to maintain their double lives, no matter the cost. What begins as a frivolous adventure on a vacation quickly becomes a total obsession, one that ultimately costs them more than they realize.
There is a joyous, satirical tone pulsating through this novel; however dark it grows these men are determined to enjoy the fruits of their cushy jobs, zip-less marriages, and offspring. A cunning storyteller, Franc lays a moral trap for the men with unsympathetic precision; yet the book is so humanly funny that the reader searches for connections between the lines, warmth inside the aloof and tough prose, hoping for the same qualities men look for in a hooker: compassion, understanding, appreciation, interest. If disguising himself, and his characters, in a nameless, faceless world enables the author to burrow down to the moral bone of our objectifying and gluttonous society, John Franc should remain anonymous.