What you might not expect from Vince Passaro's debut novel, with its title virtually reeking of snarky urban attitude, is sweetness. This tale of a New York corporate lawyer struggling with his wife, his conscience and his sleazeball clientele bears at least a vague family resemblance to other big-city, guy-centric, social-satirical novels of our age, from Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" to Kurt Andersen's "Turn of the Century" and Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections." But despite all its color and incident -- a cross-dressing, wife-killing CEO! a rich black bisexual rape victim! -- "Violence, Nudity, Adult Content" is really an interior story in a contemplative mode, whose hero prays to God, loves his kids and genuinely wants a life of hope and humility.
As a literary artist and a moral intelligence, Passaro -- a well-known essayist for Harper's and other publications -- is closer to the Franzen end of that guy-novel spectrum than to soulless showboats like Wolfe and Andersen. Yes, "Violence, Nudity, Adult Content" offers a hilariously dyspeptic, profoundly pessimistic view of Manhattan, America and the human race. You could describe it, in fact, as the first New York novel of the post-Giuliani era. (Of course, "Violence, Nudity, Adult Content" was written pre-Sept. 11, but the paranoid, violent city it imagines seems simultaneously dated and prescient, if that's possible.)
Will Riordan, an Irish Catholic from Queens, has made it, at least to the extent that he has a pretty WASP wife, two kids and a partnership-track job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm. On a night when he comes home to find Ellie, the WASP wife, broiling sole in shallots and wine, life seems good. "Yeah," says Ellie. "I thought I'd experiment with some of the upper-middle-class elegance you're always going on about. Don't get used to it." A few days later, she stabs him in the cheek with a fork and Will is forced to confront the true contours of his environment, which are not upper-middle elegance but "sweat and grease and un-picked-up apartment and lady with the maddened, postpartum eyes."
As his marriage collapses, Will must also defend the aforementioned cross-dressing CEO, who almost certainly dumped his dead wife's body at a highway rest stop, bundled in a priceless Oriental rug, and read obsessive, quasi-poetic e-mails from the aforementioned bisexual rape victim, who becomes a sort of second narrator. Passaro is such a smart and sympathetic observer, and such a relaxed prose stylist, that "Violence, Nudity, Adult Content" is never short of engaging. Yet most of the other characters, especially Ursula, the mad e-mailer, seem more like fragments of Will's personality or voices in his head than full-fledged human beings.
Ellie, in her marvelously realized midlife rage and terror, is the obvious exception, even if we're never entirely sure why she has come to hate Will so much; he seems like a profoundly decent guy who works too much and communicates no better than the average American male. Their story culminates, and begins to reverse itself, when they escape a hideous Hamptons party and wander hand in hand down the beach with two other friends, in what Ellie describes as "a '70s moment."
"She's right," Will tells himself, "it's a TV commercial from the mid-'70s, we're four sensitive friends, sitting on the beach at night, listening to the invisible sea. It's an ad for vinegar douche. Or recyclable paper. Or decaffeinated freeze-dried coffee." It's also a moment when Will and Ellie decide they love each other and begin to rebuild their marriage, and when Passaro's rare gift for combining satire and empathy, parody and pathos, is at its most powerful.