Every once in a while, in one of these sex scenes, Passaro has something genuinely interesting to say. For example, during his only sexual encounter with another man, George thinks while receiving oral sex: “It was more intense somehow. … He was being distinctly served, out of admiration. … He didn’t sleep with women who behaved that way, who were into servicing a man or into the distinct erotic possibilities of his body parts — who were erotically gratified by touching him, or by looking at him, as a body. They were gratified by him socially, emotionally, but not erotically. He was gratified by those aspects of a woman; it was never anything he detected the women feeling.”
This is great: smart, original, full of implication. Unfortunately, much of the sex depicted isn’t nearly so interesting. The grunts, the pinching (even the occasional kicking), the slowing down to put off orgasm and speeding up and slowing down again, the “expressive” mouths that “communicated want” — the whole litany of matter-of-fact detail about mostly fleeting and not particularly memorable erotic encounters begins to feel rather grim.
This may be Passaro’s point — George and Anna are supposed to be emotionally damaged, after all (see list of early traumas) — but that doesn’t make it any less tedious to read. The language in which these acts are described is concrete but flat. Humor, which might leaven the procession of body parts, isn’t absent entirely but is rather scarce, and when it comes to character development, the sex scenes give rise mostly to the kind of canned insights that might feel earned in therapy but don’t tend to come alive on the page. In the course of one fling, Anna realizes “she was no longer seeking love and affection from men, or not at first, not erotically: She wanted selfish desire on their faces, even a trace of contempt.” This, she presumes, has something to do with the fact that the men she loved “had walked away from her.”
What a relief when the book turns its focus from George’s and Anna’s love lives to George’s career. Finally, something interesting. In his early 20s, George was underemployed and apparently without ambition. He wound up helping a guy named Burke to run a coffee truck. Burke is a late-capitalist visionary. With George’s help, he parlays the cart into an East Village cafe called Brown and Co., which eventually becomes a national chain, which becomes an international chain (modeled on Starbucks). During the very decades when New York City itself seemed to undergo a similar transformation, George, without ever having meant to, becomes extremely wealthy.
He has mixed feelings about this, as well as about what Brown and Co. eventually became. “There is,” he thinks, “a difference between serving a real need, based in the habits and desires of a community, a society, a culture, and instead constantly creating needs, deploying vestigial nostalgic notions of community and culture.” Meanwhile, Brown and Co. is obliged to push down labor costs any way it can — it’s the imperative of the market, after all.
Whereas the sex scenes seem rudderless, without either a larger purpose or enough vim to keep them interesting, George’s perceptive, often original reflections on wealth, on the city, on grief and melancholy add up to something bigger, ultimately giving the novel a pull that it lacks in the early going.
Late in the book, George will tell his son Nate that when he was young, in the 1970s, people were free in a way that they might never be again in his lifetime. Nate responds that his father is being ridiculous. Black people weren’t so free, he points out: “Weren’t they still exterminating the Black Panthers at that point?” But we readers also know exactly what George means, because what Passaro has done well in “Crazy Sorrow” is evoke not George and Anna’s attraction to each other, not a romantic hero and heroine, but a vanished time and place — the mood on that gritty landfill off the financial district in 1976.