My Old Man

The Boston Globe

Breaking the mold, in the Beau Monde and Brooklyn
By Diane White
September 12, 2004

Amy Sohn’s ”My Old Man” is a dark comedy about sex and family. In parts it’s crude and explicit. It’s not for everyone, but those who want to read a fresh and irreverent comic voice may enjoy it. Sohn is semi-famous for her ”Naked City” column in New York magazine, in which she writes shamelessly about her sex life. Imagine ”Sex and the City” columnist Carrie Bradshaw minus a superego and you have some idea of her approach. This is her second novel. She has also written ”Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell,” a guide to the television series.

Narrator Rachel Block, 26, is a rabbinical-school dropout turned bartender. The first chapter of ”My Old Man’ describes the circumstances that led her to abandon her dream of becoming a rabbi, along with just about everything else she ever believed in. It’s a gem, reminiscent of Bruce Jay Friedman at his most mordantly funny. As a whole, ”My Old Man” doesn’t live up to the promise of its first chapter, but that’s a lot to ask.

Rachel lives in a tiny one-bedroom in Cobble Hill, the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up. She works at a local bar called Roxy, shaming her bewildered parents, who still live in the neighborhood. She’s having a ”quarterlife crisis,” and she thinks that tending bar will allow her to think about what she wants to do next, but she spends her working hours humoring drunks. Then she goes home alone and listens to her upstairs neighbor having noisy sex with an ever-changing array of partners.

Rachel falls in love with Hank Powell, a famous independent film producer she has idolized for years. He’s made such art-house classics as ”Lydia”s Chest Wound,” starring Annette Bening and Steve Buscemi (”about a down-and-out-female taxi driver with a bee-bee lodged in her left areola”). Sohn clearly had fun inventing Powell’s artsy oeuvre, and his character too, a self-important cineaste old enough to be Rachel’s father. He’s also NJ (Block family shorthand for ”not Jewish”) and has a sadistic streak that Rachel finds irresistible. Soon she’s meeting him for sexual trysts that grow progressively weirder and more degrading, all described in detail.

Rachel’s parents are also behaving strangely. Her mother has thrown herself into a frenzied round of activities — folk dancing, book groups, neighborhood meetings, a menopause support group, knitting lessons. Her father reveals that he’s been out of work for months. He disappears on marathon bike rides. He shaves his beard and starts doing sit-ups on the sly. When Rachel discovers what her father is up to, she’s forced to reassess their entire history, as well as take a good look at her relationship with Powell.

In some ways, Rachel is a difficult heroine to like, although it’s easy to worry about her. She’s self-destructive, needy, and pathetic. But Sohn has also given her an appealing sense of the absurd, as well as a self-mocking wit. She needs both as she tries to cope with all the kinks in this twisted story.