Published by Turnstone Press (2012)
Review by Tara Gilboy
People smarter than I advise against judging a book by its cover, but I have to admit, I decided to read Dave Williamson’s novel Dating primarily because of its cover. It’s just so, well, cool: in the retro-muted colors of an old photograph, a middle-aged couple in vintage clothing picnic on a lake; the woman, who sports a wedding ring, kisses the very surprised-looking man on the cheek. Apparently, I am not the only person drawn to the cover. I brought the book along on a trip, and people asked about it on the plane. I left the book out on my coffee table at home, and guests requested to borrow it. The cover promises much: humor, nostalgia, and, of course, dating. But then the question arises – can the book possibly live up to its cover?
I found that it does. Dating is categorized as comedy, but it delivers much more than humor. Smart, funny, and at times poignant, Dating is part love story, part social history, part coming-of-age novel.
Williamson takes a unique approach to the novel: the book is structured, not in a linear way, but around dates. When the book begins, in 2007, Jenkins, the protagonist, is dealing with the loss of his wife, Barb, who died two years before. The book moves back and forth between the present and the 1950s and 60s: from Jenkins’s first date, to his first kiss, to the first time he touches a “bare boob,” up through the time he meets his wife. Some of the dates reappear; the widowed Jenkins goes on a date with a woman he once dated in high school, who he learns, in one of the funniest scenes of the book, is much different than the girl he remembers.
Part of the great fun of this book is the way Williamson so skillfully draws the decades of the 50s and 60s. His attention to detail roots the novel firmly in the period: dating is called “stepping out,” characters attend “Bingo dances” and watch brand new black and white televisions, men wear jackets and lots of aftershave because deodorant is still a thing of the future, and Jenkins’s attempts at “heavy petting” are often thwarted by the ubiquitous girdle. All this reminiscing and travel back and forth in time come at a cost, however. While the flashbacks are fun, the connections between the memories and Jenkins’s present story are not always clear, and the novel sometimes lacks forward momentum.
Despite the lack of forward motion, Williamson creates suspense by waiting for some time, almost halfway through the book, to introduce readers, through flashback, to Jenkins’s wife. As I eagerly awaited Barb’s appearance in Jenkins’s life, I worried that Williamson wouldn’t be able to pull it off: to make Barb stand out from the other girls and render Jenkins’s reaction to her, which would need to be stronger than his reaction to his other dates, believable. After all, by the time Jenkins dates his wife, we have already seen him date nearly a dozen girls, both as a young man in the 1950s and in the present day. How could Williamson convince readers that this girl, Barb, would be the one? But Williamson does, skillfully, and as readers grow to love the young Barb, Jenkins’s present story, as he resumes his life after her death, becomes that much more touching.
The book deals with death in a way that is not sentimental; Williamson’s talent for humor is too strong for that. At times, I felt like Williamson missed opportunities to strike a deeper emotional chord; however, for the most part Williamson maintains the right balance of emotion. One of the most moving scenes in the book occurs when the widowed Jenkins, after having sex with a woman, hides from his wife’s photographs. Finally, Jenkins gathers the courage to speak to her picture. “I suppose you know what I’ve been up to [he says]…I’m telling you, it was pretty wild and crazy. Can you believe, I didn’t even have any pajamas with me? I didn’t even floss? Why didn’t you and I ever do anything crazy like that?” Here Jenkins addresses his wife as an old friend. His love for her is clear, and, while he doesn’t regret his evening with this woman, he does wish he’d been able to have it with Barb.
What Jenkins seems to really want is companionship, and this theme (despite the young Jenkins’s fixation on groping breasts) comes up again and again. Earlier in the novel, one of Jenkins’s dates comments on this when she says “We are, I think, using dating as a prelude to mate selection. We want the usual things, like emotional security and appreciation of personal worth and companionship and fulfillment of physiosexual need.” The scene is humorous (the girl says this after accusing Jenkins of looking like “a child denied dessert” at the end of their dates), but the sentiment partially explains why Williamson’s decision to structure his novel in this way was such a smart choice: to tell the story of a man’s life through his dates. Besides providing ample opportunities for humor, it also allows Williamson to comment on deeper aspects of the human condition. Don’t we all just want companionship and appreciation of personal worth? Will Jenkins be able to find this after the death of his wife? What is dating even about once you’ve reached a certain age, once mate selection seems to no longer apply? Or is companionship what dating is always about, what everyone is ultimately searching for?
Dating is well worth the read. The novel is clever, touching, and always hilarious. Jenkins’s voice stayed with me long after I’d finished. And, of course, the book will stay out on my coffee table for a long time, so I can continue to admire the cover.