Seven Days in Rio

By Francis Levy


Two Dollar Radio
August 2011

Reviewed by Mark Snyder


Two-thirds of the way through Francis Levy’s raunchy and hilarious second novel, our CPA hero Ken Cantor finally asks himself the defining question of his existence: “What is pleasure?” Despite a determined focus on procuring the perfect whore (each of whom he re-christens “Tiffany”) with which to spend his vacation, he refuses to face the answer to his query, instead settling on a series of thwarted orgasms and some serious below-the-navel-gazing.

Levy’s focus here is on the strange intersection between psychoanalysis and sexual gratification.  Ken is a self-professed “sex tourist” energized by his preoccupation with the true motive behind his carnal desires; like oh-so many academics and number-crunchers, his head just won’t let leave well enough alone.  As he descends into the lewd rabbit hole of Levy’s Wonderland (where his Alice saunters down the street in a lacy top, high heels, and no pants), Ken is confronted by every fantasy his twisted mind could summon.  And what happens when he is presented his chance for bliss on a silver platter (or, more precisely, in a rented bed)?  The twisted brilliance of Levy’s book is how Ken circumvents each attempt at copulation.

As each “Tiffany” offers herself up to him, Ken nit-picks them apart, either for their grooming habits (or lack thereof), or sensitivities of place, smell, timing.  He riffs on faith, home, the recovery movement (upon being fitted for uber-tight jeans, his attempt at pulling them on is “One Day at a Time”), and the challenges of navigating a strange city’s own particular brand of cigar-chomping pimps.  Seeping through the book is the constant underlying feeling of alienation and self-doubt.  Early in the novel, Ken states with a painful honesty:

From an early age, I knew there was something wrong with me.  I didn’t have any friends, and no girls seemed to like me.  But the sluttiest girl in my high school class, Janet Borges, agreed to go to the senior prom with me … it was the beginning of her career as whore and mine as a john.

Yet, we root for Ken in part because he articulates the distraction and ennui that defines our modern era.  He finds another theory to hold his focus when faced with happiness, explaining it away with psycho-babble and justification.

Levy is a hilarious satirist, who launches the book with a thunderclap and maintains its galloping pace throughout.  Even when Ken’s misadventures begin to feel repetitious, Levy has delved so deeply into his psyche and the issues behind his erotic impulses, each failed transaction takes on a bigger gravity, a weighted depth.  He refuses to fall easily into a misogynistic angle with this performance; instead, the book glorifies the fair sex Ken aims to objectify.  These are career women, who recognize the marketplace, their particular talents, and are living their lives passionately, accessing parts of themselves Ken can only dream of (and does).

Luckily for Ken, there are brief moments of true connection for him in Rio: his temporary therapist China Dentata, who nudges him towards facing the demons that torment him (even as she watches Brazilian soccer games during their sessions), and a sex-loving young woman named Suzanne, who commits the greatest of Rio sins.  When he rejects her, she haunts him.  And when a phone rings in his hotel room, Ken calls out to her:

For a moment I entertained the thought that she might be coming back up to the room to finish what she had started, maybe even pretending to be a whore and consenting to take some money just to consummate the act.  But no such luck.  Suzanne would not be making an appearance.  Perhaps I’d experienced a moment of temporary insanity and she hadn’t called at all.

The secret power of this novel is that, while its dream-like fuck fantasies and psycho-analytical word play seduces the reader, it is Levy’s stark examination of the loneliness we all can feel in this age of disconnected “connectedness” and the desperation we sometimes use to combat the harsh truths that only the hyper-intelligent can comprehend that haunts us even as Ken flies back home to the US, sadder and far from wiser.