"Eleven Karens" by Peter Lefcourt

A sweet tale of an ordinary dude's passion for women named Karen, by one of our most disreputable pop novelists.

Published February 10, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

Peter Lefcourt, who not so long ago gave us "Abbreviating Ernie," the story of a woman, her cross-dressing, deceased but still tumescent urologist husband, and an unfortunate but necessary incident involving an electric carving knife and a hungry pooch, is one of the most disreputable pop novelists of our age, which is why we should treasure him.

His latest, "Eleven Karens," is a novel in the form of a memoir, written from the point of view of a man who all his life has been haunted by -- you guessed it -- women named Karen. His saga begins in Queens in the mid-'50s when, after he "sleeps with" fellow fifth-grader Karen Shrummer (their heads drift together for a few brief minutes in the back seat of Mr. and Mrs. Shrummer's Chevy Impala after a daylong excursion to Howe Caverns), a posse of pushy fellow classmates decide that he must now marry her. Our fearless hero (we never learn his name) resists, until Karen Shrummer not-so-accidentally ruffles his hair, from which time he's putty not just in her hands but also in those of every Karen he's ever destined to meet.

There's lots of sex in "Eleven Karens," but it's definitely the PG-rated kind. After tumbling into bed with a couple of comely Togolese non-Karens during a Peace Corps stint (I told you Lefcourt was disreputable), our protagonist describes the scene thus: "We rolled around the bed, happy with beer and fresh from the shower. We climbed all over one another, cavorting like puppies ... I wish I could remember more of the specifics (you probably do too.)."

Everyone who reads "Eleven Karens" is likely to come away with his or her own favorite Karen -- or, more specifically, Karen episode. Mine is the story of Karen IX (our self-professed lover of Karens never learned her real last name), whom the narrator meets at a party and who kicks his ass in a game of Scrabble. After the party, he realizes he never found out who she was, so he asks the party's host about her and learns that she makes a living doing a live act at a bar on Canal street, which consists of taking a shower onstage. "I was convinced he had the wrong girl. I didn't see my Karen, the one who knew what etui meant, taking a shower onstage for construction workers."

Our Karen lover is constantly blindsided by his Karens, and his relentless confusion (not to mention Lefcourt's deft, breezy prose) makes "Eleven Karens" great fun to read. But what comes through more than anything else is the narrator's resolute, abiding love for these Karens, who live on in his memory even after he goes on to marry (happily) a non-Karen.

"Eleven Karens" is a love letter of sorts to all women everywhere who have ever befuddled a randy, sometimes clueless but basically decent average American guy. (OK, our protagonist may not be exactly average: He did propose to his own mother in an attempt to avoid the Vietnam draft. But remember, this is Lefcourt Land.)

Near the book's end, our protagonist pleads, "So, Karens, wherever you are, if you read this, forgive me the liberties I have taken with our stories. I have loved you all, briefly perhaps, imperfectly perhaps, but without design or dissimilation." "Eleven Karens" is for any woman with any moniker who has ever been loved by a confused and muddled boy. A Karen by any other name would be as sweet.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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