Though left, by the author, to our own devices, I suspect that any reader venturing into Cory Taylor’s novel of intergenerational love will find his or her direction quite early on, when its sixteen year-old protagonist, Martha, abruptly describes licking her twice-her-age lover’s balls, “the way he liked me to.”
Martha, who lives a small life in what feels like an unlucky Australian town, falls in love with Mr. Booker — initially a friend of her mother’s. Martha’s mother is passive. Her father is a miserable maniac (echoing the father in Bukowski’s Ham on Rye so closely, one wonders if Taylor took inspiration from that book). Martha is also clever in a way that makes her world even more painful. She knows that thing aren’t all all right. When Mr. and the unfortunate Mrs. Booker walk in all witty and worldly, just in from England and in their thirties, their presence signals a way of life outside Martha’s own. Sensing her boredom and feeling theirs, the Bookers take Martha in, spending what could either seem to be too much time with her or just enough; rescuing her or using her.
When Mr. Booker kisses Martha one evening (or does she kiss him?), and when the kiss inevitably leads to more and more with each meeting, we know things won’t end well. But are we repulsed or sympathetic?
Since, when I was sixteen, I wanted to sleep with plenty of men in their thirties, the aforementioned scene of ball-licking holds an erotic charge not overwhelmed by other feelings, namely that something wrong and hopeless is happening. If you didn’t have any such proclivities in your late teens, you might think she’s merely been manipulated, that she’s being taken advantage of, and that she can’t know what she’s getting herself into.
The difference between seduction and manipulation is really a difference between uncertainty and innocence: When we’re being seduced, we’re not, in general, unaware of the seduction itself, but we are often uncertain as to whether or not we’ll give into it. Manipulation, on the other hand, generally requires a party wholly innocent of the motivations of the manipulator. The book hovers just above that difference. Martha is knowing, but is she knowing enough to be seduced and not just manipulated? And if she is being seduced — or seducing for that matter — how far will she and Mr. Booker go with it?
The characters themselves all seem lost when it comes to controlling their lives, but they are, at least dimly aware of what sustains them. Martha’s mother is sustained by her inactivity; Martha’s father, Victor, by his misery. Kicked out of the house before the book begins, Victor returns again and again, asking for money, thinking he’ll reunite with his family, all the while berating them, bemoaning the state of the world, and laughing at his own wisecracks. Mr. Booker sustains Martha against her dad; something to look forward to between his visits and general boredom. As for Mr. Booker, Martha infuses his life against a drunk and sometimes absent wife (and my one real complaint against the book is that Mrs. Booker is too drunk, too absent — she conveniently disappears whenever action needs to happen, too often to become a full character). But their lives are merely sustained, and so, feel precarious. Precariously built structures sway in the wind, and so we know everyone’s life will have to come crashing down sooner or later. The questions for us as readers are, how long until these lives unravel, and how will it happen?
This all paints a darker picture of the book, perhaps, than it deserves — it is dark, but darkly funny. From Victor likening his love of his family to the love of God because no one ever feels it to Martha’s quip when he tells her he has a chemical imbalance in his brain, “That’s a relief… I thought you were crazy.”
Part of the pleasure and sadness of the book is that everyone dances around their real feelings with humor, and if they don’t, they are — like Martha’s mother and Mrs. Booker — taken advantage of and duped. Of course, everyone’s duping themselves too.
“You’ve saved my life,” Mr. Booker says to Martha, in a rare moment of non-sexual earnestness. “I bet you say that to all the girls,” she replies.
The novel does not expect or exactly foster understanding of Martha’s relationship with Mr. Booker. The pair hide their romance from everyone — a hiding which admits its guilt and can even appear mean-spirited when Mrs. Booker comes around. Yet we may admire their passion amidst the pains of life; they make us laugh, and for awhile, at least, deftly skip past their sorrows together. So Me and Mr. Booker is a book of wavering, hesitant in its sympathies, welcoming readers to find their own allegiances however they please, which is a mark of its confidence, as well as Cory Taylor’s impressive talents.