Erotica is about the journey. Whereas romance focuses on the end of the road, the elimination of obstacles and the consummation of desire, erotica frequently concerns itself with the twists and turns required to get to that point, and sometimes, with the mishaps that send you hurtling off the highway and over the precipice.
Thirty-One Days details the erotic journey of its narrator, a self-absorbed, egotistical, insecure young man, from het-sex god to gay submissive to (possibly) mass murderer. Related in an informal first person that's not quite stream of consciousness, it's a harrowing trip indeed. To call this book “raw” would be an understatement. Extreme sex, extreme violence, pain, humiliation, drugs, knives, branding, blood, piss, shit and vomit – you'll find all this and more in this four hundred plus page novel. Yet I would not say the book is pure exploitation. I don't think Ms. Jefferson (Amazon identifies the author as female, a surprise to me) wrote this tale purely to shock. There are nuggets of truth buried in even the most outrageous scenes. The main character (dare I call him a hero?) feels real, with his alternating doubt and bravado, his continued attempts to resist the temptations of his dark side and his continued failures. The book definitely made me squirm at times, yet I wanted to keep reading – not because I particularly like the violent and degrading sex, but because I was fascinated by the protagonist's downward spiral.
As the book begins, it's the first of December. The narrator (whose name I never noticed, but whom Amazon identifies as “Derek”) and his drinking buddies dream up a crazy challenge. Each of them will fuck thirty one different women, one per day until the New Year. The other three guys who take the pledge last no more than a day or two. Derek, on the other hand, is a chick magnet. All he has to do, it seems, is smile and the woman's in his bed.
The book gleefully recounts the details of each encounter. Initially, Derek targets girls his own age – ex-girlfriends, the bartender at the local watering hole, visiting coeds he meets at holiday parties. As Christmas approaches, his conquests become more ambitious and risky. He beds a sexually curious sixteen year old one night, then her insatiable forty-something mother the next. He stalks the classy, curvy middle-aged librarian, who just happens to be his next door neighbor, and buggers her among the stacks. At a company party, he tempts the pregnant wife of a colleague into the restaurant kitchen and fucks her until she bleeds.
Ms. Jefferson has a finely tuned sense of timing. The structure of Thirty-One Days is deliberate and artful. The fateful thirty one days of debauchery unfold in flashbacks, interspersed with scenes from the present, where Derek haunts the narrow, spunk-scented corridors of gay sex clubs, trying to convince himself he's not a homosexual. Despite his determination to do nothing more than prove his dominant masculinity, he is repeatedly drawn into situations where he allows himself to be bound, beaten and sodomized by other men, particularly a skinny, effeminate but intelligent guy named Stevie who is both his nemesis and his mentor. The book alternates between Derek's confused, increasingly violent homoerotic adventures and his heterosexual pre-New-Year's fucks, which each day grow more extreme but less enjoyable. The narrator hints at a crisis, but only in the last quarter of the book do we discover what event has sent him spinning into the world of leather, poppers and glory holes. Of course, we suspect (as does he) that a sexual attraction to men and a craving for abuse (as both receiver and giver) were latent in his nature all along, but something had to snap before he could consciously consider such a thing.
So, is this so-called erotica arousing? Thirty-One Days is powerful, visceral, uncomfortable, disturbing, disgusting at times. Many readers will find the blatant misogyny of its narrator acutely offensive. Although his thirty one women ostensibly consent, many of his conquests deserve to be called rape. He doesn't kill any of his women – quite – but he comes close in several cases. He's concerned at first, both about their pleasure and their safety, but as the month goes on, his cruelty and callousness reach almost unbelievable levels. Some readers may feel he deserves the rough handling he gets at the hands of the “queers” to whom he finds himself attracted.
With all these caveats, I have to admit that some parts of the book pushed my buttons. The encounter with Cathy, the librarian, was one of the hottest scenes I've read in while. Then there's the protagonist's barely remembered meeting with “God”, the mysterious Uber-Master of the most vicious club he attends. God, it turns out, is trans and exquisitely powerful and alluring. The dream-like interlude perhaps sums up the narrator's sexual confusion. The Master's dualism is a mirror of his own nature.
Ultimately, I'm not sure it was the author's intent to arouse, or at least not exclusively. Some readers will call this book pornography of the worst sort, the kind that glorifies the abuse of women and equates sex with violence. Perhaps they're correct. On the other hand, Thirty-One Days is also a well-crafted, thought-provoking novel that asks difficult questions about the nature of desire. If it's porn, it's some of the best-written porn I've ever read, though not necessarily the sexiest.