David Guterson's 1994 debut, Snow Falling on Cedars, was set on a desolate island in the Puget Sound and told the story of a Japanese-American fisherman on trial for murder. It was a subdued morality tale, later turned into a successful film. The author's latest novel, Ed King might have been written by someone else entirely. A mid-life crisis of a novel, this re-telling of the Oedipus myth is a nihilistic romp that this week found itself the winner of the Bad Sex Award.
It's Seattle in the early 1960s, and Walter Cousins, a married actuary and father of two, ends up sleeping with the 15-year-old au pair while his wife recovers from a breakdown. The au pair, an English girl called Diane - whose archaic anglicisms sound decidedly Downton - gets pregnant and demands hush money. But instead of bringing up the baby on her own, she hands him over for adoption to a doting Jewish couple, using Walter's payments to re-invent herself as an upmarket call-girl.
At this point in the story it becomes clear that Guterson's all-American chronicle of family dysfunction might have a Hellenic bent. While Walter's teenage children, Tina and Barry, grow to hate their father, their illegitimate baby brother, Ed, basks in the devotion of his adoptive family. By the time this mommy's boy comes of age, he's proficient at everything - from mathematics to swimming to dating older women. It's while driving his 1966 Pontiac, a lavish bar mitzvah present, that he meets his Oedipal fate and runs a middle-aged man off the road.
The narrative can only get more tragic, and it does. After years of plastic surgery, Diane now passes as a much younger woman. When she unknowingly bumps into her son at the Pacific Science Center, their genetic attraction is instantaneous. Ed is now the multi-billionaire owner of a ground-breaking internet search engine, and the incestuous couple not only end up in bed, but getting married.
The classical conceit is a clever one, but Guterson's cast of amoral and unlikeable characters start to grate. His early novels were notable for their sober storylines and nuanced writing. In contrast, this frenetic novel is awash with flip cynicism and clever commentary. Not that Guterson doesn't know what he's up to. "Now we approach the part of the story a reader can't be blamed for having skipped to," he writes, "the part where a mother has sex with her son." To see what the Bad Sex judges were getting so hot under the collar about, turn to p.237 and decide for yourself.