Kosher sex

Author Daniel Handler mixes Jewish mythos with operatic Eros for a richly offbeat tale.

Oct 25, 2000 at 12:00 am

Incest and opera might be equally repulsive to some. Notions of inbreeding, immorality, and Italian overtures could undermine the comic potential in either subject. Luckily, Daniel Handler's successful sophomore effort shows that combining these oft-distasteful subjects can yield rich rewards.

Opera is the form and sex is the primary activity in Handler's Watch Your Mouth, as his unreliable narrator, Joseph, recounts the disastrous summer he worked as a Jewish day-camp counselor and lived with his insatiable girlfriend and her family in Pittsburgh. Joseph seems to have a good head on his shoulders but he's almost always thinking with something other than his brain. When he's not describing the various erotic encounters with his girlfriend, he's speculating on the family's discussions of "intergenerational sex" and wondering just what type of quality time his girlfriend spends with her father.

This narrow focus doesn't limit Handler's reach. His use of pop-culture references, Jewish mythology, and operatic cues (including overtures and intermissions) reveal both the complexity and sheer lunacy of his work. After the final curtain of the first part falls, Joseph moves from Pittsburgh to Pittsburg, California, where he finds work in a bookstore and comes to terms with the tragic events of the opera. While stocking the New Age section, Joseph finds salvation (and a structure for the second part of his tale) in a 12-step guide called Breaking the SPELL.

Handler's narrative shift in style from the stage to the New Age, as he chronicles the final part of the book in "twelve neat steps," is just another playfully ambitious left turn that pays off. Whether he's satirizing high schools as in his debut, The Basic Eight (1999), or writing children's books under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, Handler doesn't shy away from telling a good offbeat tale. You shouldn't shy away from reading him.

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.