Beneath the surface of this expertly written and highly arousing piece of straight-to-gay erotica is a searing portrait of contemporary masculinity and internalised self-loathing. It’s a subversive sleigh-of-hand that only a very talented writer could pull-off.
Joe Heath is a 40-something British everyman heading straight for the predictable crisis of the white suburban male. Having sleepwalked into adulthood, he’s now fallen out of love with his wife. His job brings him no personal satisfaction, his friends seem to have drifted away unnoticed and his kids may was well live on another planet.
A male physio’s massage at the gym triggers a surprising hard-on, the first step in a journey of sexual self-discovery as Joe uses gay sex to unlock his cell and fuck his way to freedom.
Unfortunately, freedom doesn’t taste as sweet as he’d briefly allowed himself to imagine. Instead, Joe finds himself in larger, invisible cage, built by his own hands and made entirely of self-hatred.
What starts as generic but highly effective erotica quickly morphs into something much less comfortable: a self-narrated portrait of existential despair.
James Lear takes a significant risk in painting Joe Heath as a self-delusional, self-pitying, self-absorbed and self-indulgent twat – I suspect some readers won’t stay along for the ride. Joe’s an inconsiderate husband and negligent father. He’s sexist, narcissistic and boring, an empty vessel with no inner life. Sex at first is liberation, until Joe imbues it with the soullessness that permeates the rest of his life. In some ways he’s Patrick Bateman’s under-achieving Brit cousin.
The risk pays off. We may not like our narrator, but by the time we recognise his flaws we’ve been tricked into identifying with him through beautifully described first person sexual fantasies.
Joe Heath is a blank canvas onto which brave readers will project their worst insecurities. He’s a mirror in which we see reflected our most self-delusional hedonistic narratives, self-gratifying impulses disguised as non-conformism, selfish streaks paraded as self-affirmation in the face of social oppression.
Clever is the novelist who can design a story that works so effectively on multiple levels at once. In a surprising, well-executed ending, we are shown how dishonesty and self-loathing reproduce themselves socially like a virus, and the courage it might take to break the cycle.
In the same way the best violent novels interrogate our relationship to violence, and even our complicity as readers, While My Wife’s Away invites us to reflect on the sex we aspire to have and what it says about the people we aspire to be. I was turned on, yet also encouraged to ponder what turned me on and why, and the part that honesty and self-delusion play in the process.
It’s not what I was expecting when I picked up this book with my left hand, but now that my right hand is stroking my chin, I can’t say I’m ungrateful for the change of plan.