Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber

The Double Life of Alfred Buber

I received this as a review copy from the Permanent Press, an excellent independent publisher based in New York. The Permanent Press is one of only a few literary independent publishers left who take the chance to publish serious novels by little known writers. I admire that. And I admire what David Schmahmann was trying to do here, though he ultimately comes up a little short.

The Double Life of Alfred Buber is the story of an attorney who becomes involved in the sex trade and, eventually, prostitution in Asia. He falls for a Bangkok bar girl and his troubles begin. The role of fantasy for the men involved in sex tourism (“this girl really likes me” or “I’m helping this woman”) and the nature of the relationships between the Westerners who frequent Asia and the local people, especially the sex workers, a large part of what this book is about and the conclusions are both obvious and disturbing.

Schmahmann is definitely a Nabokov fan and the book leans heavily on the style of Lolita. Narrated by Buber, who comes off as a less charming version of Humbert, it is hard, just like in Lolita, hard to know what to believe. Turns out, it is best to believe nothing and let the story unwind as it will. By half way through, you’ll be pleasantly confused, by the end, you might be a bit disappointed by the failure to wrap things up cleanly, and I guarantee you’ll feel a little dirty.

The sex tourist is a sad creature, but he is also a powerful one, and that is an aspect of this world I wish the book had focused on more. The book hints at this, but it isn’t explored enough. Buber is powerful attorney in the United States, but also sad sack who can’t find love. In Asia, he thinks he can be a hero, or at least buy love but again, he comes up short. Buber is Buber no matter where in the world he goes. This is a decent read. The descriptions of sex tourism in Asia are suitably stomach turning, even if the power relations are not explored enough, and the depiction of the drudgery of the commercial lawyers is well done. Schamahmann can write, I just wish he had ended the book in a more careful manner.

– Sean

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