Two on One: Afterburn by Colin Harrison

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Two on One    

Liking It Rough

by Louis Bayard and Jennifer Howard

THE SETUP: Ex-flyboy and POW Charlie Ravich can handle whatever the high-stakes world of international business throws at him. Yet his wife is losing her memory and maybe her mind, his son has died of leukemia and his daughter is infertile. It’s the end of the genetic road unless he can find a young woman willing to have his child. When he hooks up with one who will — twenty-seven-year-old Christina Welles, a girl on the run from the mob — their lives come crashing together in a bloody explosion of torture, greed and retribution.

HOWARD: Colin Harrison, the deputy editor of Harper’s, has written three previous thrillers, and he knows how to get at the worst in people. Charlie’s a pretty likeable guy, decent family man and all that, but he’s pretty cold when it comes to making his millions and getting what he wants — just like goodfella Tony Verducci. But most ruthless of all is Christina, a hyperorgasmic math whiz and Columbia University dropout who can come up with random-number-generating schemes (very handy in the underworld) as fast as she comes. Which is very fast.

BAYARD: Yes, she comes very fast, but then stays very long, like a malevolent houseguest. There doesn’t seem to be a man alive who can give our Christina the number of orgasms she seems to require. I’m trying to remember the last book I read with such sexually inexhaustible women. Maybe Lady Chatterley’s Lover.


What gives Afterburn its piquancy, I guess, is the suggestion that women really want nothing more than to be plugged for hours on end. I was particularly touched by the two whores that our stallion Rick Bocca (Christina’s mobster ex-boyfriend) spends a couple of hours drilling. One of them snarls: “That hurt, you fucker.” The other responds: “Nah, Kirby, I seen you, that hurt good.”


So what is it about thriller sex? Why is it always so hyperbolic? It’s not enough that Rick and Christina have great sex. It’s so great that hotel security staff have to burst into their room because they think Christina is being murdered. She then dances around nude to show that she has not been lacerated in any way. One character actually has to go see her gynecologist the next day.


It makes you wonder if thriller writers have this kind of sex. Probably just writing about it is enough to exhaust them. I would guess they’re very weary, gentle people in cardigan sweaters. “Honey, would you mind if we didn’t do the thrashing, screaming, head-banging-against-the-wall, multi-orgasm thing tonight? I’ve got these papers to grade … ”

HOWARD: I don’t think anybody has the kind of sex people have in this book. There’s only so much pounding a body can take.

BAYARD: Then again, Colin Harrison’s wife is Kathryn Harrison, who wrote The Kiss — a tasteful memoir about having an affair with one’s father — so I would guess there are complex sexual issues going on in that particular domicile.

HOWARD: Big daddy issues, for sure. (But the kinkiest scene in Kathryn’s book, for my money, is the one in which she describes fondling her mother’s corpse in its coffin.) There are some hints of Kathryn’s memoir in Afterburn: Christina’s relationship with Charlie reconfigures the incestuous father-daughter bond.

BAYARD: If you ask me, the sex in Afterburn is the kind that teenage boys dream about while whacking off in their parent’s rec room. Yeah, they think, when I get through with her, she’s going to be screaming bloody murder.

HOWARD: In thrillers, though, violence and sex are like Siamese twins born sharing heart and lungs: you can’t separate them. Every character’s out for blood, whether she/he gets it in the sack, the boardroom or in the old warehouse on Tenth Avenue where Morris, Tony’s in-house torturer, “persuades” the unwilling to talk.


While we’re getting gritty: what about that scene in said warehouse in which Morris — a man as handy with a drill as Rick is with his dick — turns Rick into a shop project? I’ll never look at a power drill the same way again.

BAYARD: Let’s just say I learned uses for a circular saw that I’d never have gleaned from Bob Vila. Harrison has tasted blood, and it is good! I mean, what can you say about a book that begins with a guy being tortured by the Vietcong and ends with the same guy being tortured by the Cosa Nostra?


What troubled and intrigued me was the way in which Harrison flouts the conventions of his genre. As I understand it, a thriller protagonist can work off his or her moral debts by suffering a single serious physical trauma — usually, a savage beating. Thus, Charlie atones for killing Vietnamese people by having gooks crush his shins with stones; Rick atones for abandoning Christina by having his arm sawed off. But then they keep suffering, and the only character who emerges triumphant at the end is the one who has done the least amount of repenting. Is this fair?

HOWARD: I think Harrison’s bleeding the genre to show up the moral ugliness of big-time business: the world belongs to the ruthless — nothing personal, fellah, but we’re going to cut off your arm if you don’t tell us where the money is. (Nice touch in that scene, by the way, when Morris asks Rick what kind of music he wants to be tortured to and he picks Bruce Springsteen.) In Afterburn, it’s people like Rick and Charlie, who try in some feeble way to do the right thing, who keep paying for their sins.


Charlie feels too much, that’s his problem; Tony’s gang of torturers hit a nerve — literally — when they slice open his back. And then he has to try to save himself by putting together a quickie business deal! That was the most original scene in the book for me: they’ve got this poor guy strapped to a table with his spinal column exposed (hey! that’s symbolism!) and he has to get on the cell phone to his banker and his broker, trying to buy back his own life. It gives a whole new meaning to “cutthroat competition.”

BAYARD: I wish I could buy the parallel Harrison evokes between the worlds of high finance and the Mafia, but it struck me as facile — or it would be facile if it weren’t so laboriously worked out. To me, the book is about the perils of being an alpha male. Flying bomber jets, making quick killings on the stock market, pumping iron, bopping women, scattering your seed — it’s the whole he-man repertoire within a single volume. The irony is that the more alpha they are, the harder they fall. By the end of the book, they couldn’t be less in charge of their own lives. I guess the message here is that life is nasty, brutish and (except for the endowment of the male characters) short.

HOWARD: I’ve never been happier not to have a Y chromosome. Better to take the Christina route: the MBA meets the Black Widow — have a baby, make a bundle and destroy every male you touch. Now that’s a business plan.

BAYARD: Too bad Martha Stewart got there first.

©2000 Louis Bayard,