A few years ago I picked up a gig reviewing fiction for one of the journals. They were looking for male reviewers to look at books likely to appeal to men. In practice, this means that I’m a go-to guy for books that are violent, sexed up, or barbed with dark humor. It’s an adventure when I open that manilla envelope to see what’s inside. My co-workers and I have fun with it every time.
When the latest assignment, Peep Show by Joshua Braff, arrived, it felt a little dirty, a little comical. With the livid red cover and the camera peeping out, the book looks salacious, and my co-workers gave me some friendly razzing. I read the jacket copy and smirked: Hasidic Jews and Times Square peep shows! They don’t exactly go together like chocolate and peanut butter. If you’ve read broadly, you’ve seen books that have little going for them but shock value. I’m inured to such stuff. I’m not 18 anymore and such books don’t do much for me. Frankly, I didn’t expect much.
But you can’t judge this book by its cover. Braff tells the story of David Arbus, freshly out of high school in the mid 70s. His mother has converted to Hasidism, partially to distance herself from the world of her ex-husband, who co-owns the Imperial, an aging burlesque house that’s under pressure to switch to raunchier fare: peep shows, hard core pornography, and sex toys in the lobby. David’s mother wants him to embrace a lifestyle he views as religious extremism and his father wants him to learn the family business. David isn’t comfortable with either. He’s more inclined toward his father, but because his father is more fun and pressures him less, not because of the pornography. Still, he loves his mother and cares deeply about his younger sister, and doesn’t want to be shut out of their lives.
David’s father is ailing, his decline speeded by the financial pressure he faces to embrace ever sleazier pornography. He’s forever on a quest for more contact with his children. Thinking he will win David over, he involves him in his business as the cameraman on pornographic shoots. There is some graphic content in the novel, but Braff’s depiction of pornography isn’t titillating. Sometimes with bitter dark humor, sometimes with the poignant description of sad details, he captures the way that the business is humiliating and pathetic for everyone involved.
This powerful family story raises real ethical dilemmas. One understands and can empathize with the decisions the parents make, even though they put their children in untenable positions. Book groups will find many interesting themes: How could each character have behaved differently? What traits do the seemingly opposite worlds of Hasidic Judaism and pornography share? How has the nature of pornography changed over time? What will happen to the characters after the novel’s end? Braff captures the time and place of 1970s New York vividly. If your group is comfortable with mature themes and some graphic sexuality, they’ll find this Peep Show an unlikely but successful choice.