Handler, Daniel. “All the Dirty Parts”, Bloomsbury, Reprint, 2019.
Sex and Young People
Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts” looks at teenage desire in today’s culture of explicitness in which sex is common and love is not so common. We have short chapters that give us a tender, brutal, funny, intoxicating portrait of an age through the lens of sex tilts. Cole, our teenaged main character, tells us that “There are love stories galore…This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.”
Cole is in high school. He runs, sketches, has friends. But it is sex that drives him. He fantasizes about whomever he’s looking at. He loves pornography and he sleeps with a lot of girls giving him a not-so-nice reputation around school. Soon it is just him and his best friend for company until something startling starts to happen between them that might be what he’s been after all this time but then he meets Grisaille.
This is a coming of age story that hides nothing and the language is quite bold making this “An irreverent, intimate glimpse inside adolescent desire, sexual identity, and emotional discovery.” It is an honest look at the sexuality of adolescent boys as well as a commentary on today’s youth. Cole is who he is because he has been more or less bred by society to be just that. The characters here struggle with “the pursuit of pleasure and the other parts of their lives” including searching for identity.
Daniel Handler is known for his series of Lemony Snickett books and he really changes course here. Written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness/coming-of-age tale, there is standard plot. What is surprising is that we get those parts which are usually edited out of novels for young adults.
Cole is a horny egoist 17-year old male whose female sexual conquests are in double-digits, and have given him a not-so-nice reputation among his high school peers. When he isn’t hooking up with his classmates, he’s trades internet porn with best friend, Alec, who lives through Cole’s adventures. He demands that Cole tell him everything, including “all the dirty parts”. When Cole is not sexually active and/or having a dry spell (for him, anyway), he and Alec wind up watching porn together, and one thing leads to another and keeps going. When things seem to getting hot between Cole and Alec, an exotic foreign exchange student, Grisaille comes to their school and she has an appetite for sex that rivals Cole’s.
This is quite a short book that is erotic but never would I say that it is pornographic. There is nothing fake about Cole; he is who he is and happily so. He is both authentic and callous and he is also surprisingly vulnerable.
By the end of the novel, we realize that we have read a morality tale that ends quite ambiguously. It is left to the reader’s imagination as to what happens next in Cole’s life and this is perfect when we reflect on the kind of character that he is.