Looking for Mr. Goodbar — based on a true story set during 1970s hook-up culture

Content Warnings: racial and sexual slurs, profanity, graphic sexual descriptions, murder, rape, drug use, abortion, not using contraceptives, promiscuity, marital infidelity, inappropriate sexual relationship between student and professor.

I can see how some of my content warnings seem judgmental, such as “not using contraceptives.” Personally, I think engaging in sexual activities with strangers and not using contraceptives is what makes it problematic; the carelessness when it comes to infections/diseases and spreading them in a community is dangerous. Many cases go undiagnosed, meaning people are spreading infections/diseases unknowingly, even while knowing the risks. Therefore, I included several content warnings that seem odd.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is the second book set in the 1970s that I’ve read quite recently. The other was The Customer is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond, and many of us celebrated the laissez faire attitude of the times in the comment section. But it’s that same attitude that appears to undo some characters in Judith Rossner’s 1975 novel, Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

goodbar book 1

Theresa appears to believe her childhood in the 1950s was uneventful, but it shapes her adult life: she had polio, which later led to scoliosis when her muscles weakened on one side of her back. The scoliosis meant a year in a body cast in the hospital. Because Theresa’s brother dies in Vietnam, no one pays attention to her during this time. Her sister, Katherine, older by almost 10 years, tries to befriend Theresa. But Katherine may be a negative influence and is possibly a mess: it’s seems like she’s always getting divorced or an abortion because she doesn’t know the father. Notice I wrote “seems” and “may.” It’s hard to make judgments about the characters because what I deem a mess, the characters may deem normal for the times.

In college, Theresa is a quiet, shy girl with a literature professor who subtly pokes the vulnerable places in Theresa’s psyche. I would say armor, but she doesn’t have any. Eventually, Theresa loses her virginity to this married professor. She wants it so badly that she works as his assistant, grading his papers and doing all his work. As a professor myself, he’s the epitome of the “sage on the stage,” the elitist type of professor who thinks he holds all the answers, and students must dangle and hide their soft parts while he lashes them verbally. I still get mad when I think of him, a credit to Rossner’s writing.

goodbar book 2

Rossner’s plot suggests the professors purely sexual relationship with Theresa changes her. She goes on to become a school teacher, a job she loves, but by night she’s always in the bars looking for a new sexual partner. Of course, the obvious question is “What’s a nice girl like you doing here?” Most sexual partners are fun for the night. One Vietnam vet keeps returning, though he came off as terrifying to me; he’s easily angered and always has heavy rock music blaring from Theresa’s speakers.

Rossner describes these sexual encounters, and during each, I wondered, When will Theresa become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection or disease? When will someone kill her? Will she be raped? At one point Theresa is having sex and enjoying it, but her partner changes into a position that feels forceful and scares her. Rossner writes, “[Theresa] felt as though she’d acquiesced in her own rape . . .” Looking for Mr. Goodbar is apparently known for it’s explicit sex scenes (I didn’t know this when I picked up the book), and I will say you can damn near feel them, which is scary.

Theresa appears to have no concern for her life or safety — she believes she should have died when she had polio — and that’s her choice. But her co-workers don’t know about Theresa’s night life, and one well-intentioned woman sets Theresa up with a nice lawyer, James, whose personality is both infinitely patient and unsettling. Theresa constantly suggests he should leave her alone because she’s bad, and then behaves rudely. But she also wants to be with him. Despite dating him, Theresa keeps up her trips to single’s bars. Rossner’s book would be an excellent choice for a book club discussion if you want to get those quiet people talking. The setting, culture, and characters create debate. What kind of person is Theresa? Is she “bad”? How do readers deal with unlikable characters, and can we feel empathy for their actions? To what degree do our first 20 years of life shape our futures?

Readers already know the ending: it was actually revealed in the beginning through dialogue written as if it’s a tape recording of a man confessing to Theresa’s murder. A man she picked up in a place called Mr. Goodbar. But is her search for sexual gratification about tempting death by engaging in risky behaviors, or satisfying a real sexual urge women aren’t supposed to have? The narrator implies both. And that’s a lot to chew on.

Roseann_Quinn
Roseanne Quinn

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a psychological novel that gets into your head and makes you turn the pages like you would for a thriller written today. It’s based on the true story of Roseanne Quinn, a New York City school teacher who was murdered in 1973. She was known for reading while sitting in bars alone and then taking strange men home. Evidently, one night she took home a stranger from a bar to smoke weed and have sex. When he was unable to have an erection, she apparently insulted him and he stabbed her. The events led to Rossner’s novel in 1975 and a film adaptation starring Diane Keaton in 1977.

goodbar film

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30 comments

  1. It actually sounds more interesting than I was anticipating. Somehow I’ve managed to get through all these years without seeing the film – I suspect I’d enjoy it more than the book because there’s a limit to how graphic (mainstream) films can be.The 70s were a strange time – the pill was easily available and AIDS hadn’t yet appeared. There’s no doubt female promiscuity was a major feature of the time, and men, I think, didn’t quite know how to handle it…

    • I was thinking of you as I wrote the review and wondered what you would say. The book IS fairly graphic, but you’re right: Diane Keaton couldn’t do everything that’s written, and Richard Gere is in the movie too. I’ll bet he’s the nice lawyer. I’m going to rent the film ASAP and I’ll let you know how it goes.

      What were you doing in the 70s? My mom graduated high school in ’77, but I don’t know that her teeny high school would have offered an experience that captured the time.

      • Yes, please do let me know about the film! I don’t watch many so I like to know if they’re worth the time investment…

        I left school in 1975 when I was 16 and worked in an office for three years before going to uni. So the 70s were my teens years really. I also left home when I was 17 and lived in a bedsit, so a lot of growing up was happening. Life was exciting back then for women – things were changing rapidly both in work and in society – but also a bit scary. The old traditions and values were dying but nobody had really worked out new ones. Not sure they have yet…

        • I know I feel conflicted about my role as a woman and wife, or if I should even have one. I’m a do it all person, but if I forget to get groceries, I’m pretty such I have zero “woman worth,” which is silly. Thank you for sharing about your time growing up 🙂

  2. In the 70s I was in my 20s, so this is home territory for me, though I didn’t see the movie, probably because I spent the whole of the 70s stoney broke, couch surfing and living out of the front seat of my truck (no sleeper cab!). As I guy I would wish I met these women who “gave it away,” but in truth I was looking for more and the women had serious self-esteem issues, and if you ran across them you’d feel sorry for them.

    • I’m going to point out a stereotype and note that truckers seem like they would be the kind of people who would find women like Theresa when they stay overnight somewhere and then leave, which is exactly what Theresa always wanted. I think you’ve hit on something with your self-esteem comment. In Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Theresa admitted she didn’t think she should be alive, that she should have died when she had polio as a little kid. When she is murdered, her last thoughts are not panicked, but more like relief.

      • Everyone says that about drivers – a girl in every truckstop. But in fact I mostly pull up for the night in laybys, don’t eat at truckstops – I can make my own meals and boil water for breakfast (porridge and coffee), and can go for weeks not talking to anyone at all outside my family when I see them once or twice a week. Above all, truckdrivers can’t drink during the working week, so they don’t go to bars.

        • I hear reports in the States about how unfairly truck drivers are treated. There’s often no where for them to stop and park overnight, so they leave their truck idling on the freeway ramps. I know drivers are required to have a break of X number of minutes to reduce drowsiness and increase safety, but drivers point out that the time it takes to fill up with gas is pretty close to the required break, so there really ISN’T a break. I hope more is done in the U.S. to help these important drivers, but I know a lot of people are moving toward making all rigs self-driving because a lot of people don’t trust how safe truckers are being with sleep, breaks, remain sober (not just alcohol). There’s not a lot of respect for the position. Now that I think about it, there is a book I would love for you to have, but I’m sure it’s very expensive to send things to Australia from here. It’s called Two Small Birds by Dave Newman, about it’s about a man who loves poetry who becomes a trucker to make some fast money. It’s very realistic and yet artful, and I loved it. Here’s my brief review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/893385406

          • I read and enjoyed your review. Wages are high enough in Australia that if I drive 80 hours a week I earn about as much as a member of parliament. I’m afraid the only US trucking book I’ve read is Farrell Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion.

  3. Gosh, a challenging book; it reminded me oddly of Mary Macarthy’s “The Group” although that’s a very different book; just that off-hand promiscuous behaviour that was a shocker to me, a teenager when the big anti-AIDS campaigns hit.

    • And I’m not 100% certain, but I think by the end of Looking for Mr. Goodbar we were near the end of the 70s. The narrator, Theresa, was so certain, deep in her bones, that she would never get pregnant. She never did, but I wondered why she knew that and if she didn’t worry about any other STDs/STIs. It’s surprising to me because I was born in the 80s and grew up in the 90s. I can’t image a time when people weren’t concerned about responsible sex. I’m not shaming promiscuity, but the lack of concern shocks me, especially since such a high number of people have an STD/STI and don’t even know it.

  4. Yeezus! This sounds like a really intense book. But how timely that you read and reviewed it right now, I think there would be lots of renewed interest based on the me too movement, etc.

    • The crazy thing is the narrator wasn’t even sure where the boundaries were in her sexual relationships. At one point, she admits she’s horny and enjoying herself, then she doesn’t like something her partner does. Now, I chalk some of that up to this: how well can you communicate with a true stranger — especially when you’re having sex. Therefore, each partner appears to be doing what makes him/her satisfied, not caring what the other person considers a violation.

  5. Although I remember just blasting through this a couple of times (late teens, then, early twenties), I remembered very little of it (other than the sense of un-put-down-ability), so I quite enjoyed your summary of it. Also, I love book/film pairings – it makes you think differently about the story, whether in terms of mechanics or theme – a great exercise!

    • What was it that made you read this book as a teenager? I feel like if I read it in my teens, I would have felt very……odd…for a while. I was a really innocent sort of person, and there are certain sexually-explicit books that make me feel like something naughty has happened, and not really in a good way. I never felt the same way about movies, which I think is a tribute to the power of words.

  6. At first, I didn’t think I’d want to read this, but now I think it sounds intriguing. And I hardly ever read books from the 70s, so educational too, right? Or I could just watch the movie?
    Good point about how it could be hard to know boundaries when having sex with a stranger.

    • I was so worried that based on the content warnings that no one would even read my review, so it makes me happy to hear that you are intrigued! It’s a strange book, and in many ways was a compulsive read that reminded me of the hyper-sexual narrator in Tampa by Alyssa Nutting (though in Tampa we’re talking about a teacher and a child). Then again, Theresa in Looking for Mr. Goodbar has a past that implies her behavior is part of her past, whereas in Tampa, the narrator was sex-crazy without reason that I could see.

  7. I think this would make an EXCELLENT book for my book group! I’m going to keep this in mind when it’s my turn again to suggest titles. Thanks for writing about this. It’s one I’ve never even considered reading before.

    • You’re welcome! My mom recommended it to me, even though I never would think of her as someone to read this kind of work. A cousin who is about my mom’s age also said she read it compulsively in high school (and the cousin is a very innocent sort of person, too). It’s surprising how Looking for Mr. Goodbar reached so many people in the 70s.

  8. The diversity of the literature you read and review blows my mind. I love the dichotomy of comparing this to The Customer is Always Wrong so closely together. It’s obvious even in your two reviews there are many parallels– though, Looking for Mr. Goodbar is definitely on the darker side. There is a lot to think about between these pages. The psychological aspect really intrigues me. What is considered healthy and happy? What is too much? How much do we turn an intentional blind eye to societally– particularly in the 70s!

    That said… this might be just a bit *too dark* for me. I don’t know if I am willing to delve into this in my free time. I wish I could push my own boundaries a bit more without worrying about potential nightmares… O_o

    • Based on what I know about you, I would recommend you not read Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The funny thing about reading two books set in the 1970s is I didn’t plan it. The Mimi Pond graphic novel was something I grabbed from the library to support the author because I appreciate how long she has worked to get where she is, and I read Looking for Mr. Goodbar because my mom recommended it about 4 years ago and suddenly decided to get it.

      • Thanks for the non-recommendation. XD Lately I’ve been really into reading happy fluffy books. Life has been so stressful with wedding planning and the job and all that I have needed nothing but fluff to get me through my free time. I look forward to picking up heavier novels in the spring.

  9. Great review! There’s something about this title that sounds so familiar to me, but I don’t think I’ve ever read this (or seen the movie). From your review it doesn’t sound like it’s a title that would be easily forgotten. It does sound like an excellent discussion book!

  10. Nice review. I have seen the movie but only recently read the book. The 70s were a strange and dangerous time. People thought cocaine was harmless. It was considered the perfect drug because it made you feel good but unless you snorted a truckload of it you were good to go. It was the same way with sex, but men still had very conservative ideas about women. This weird vibe and disconcerting juxtaposition, so pervasive in the book was undercurrent rhythm of times.

    • What’s weird is when I read this novel, I had also read several other books set in the 70s. I didn’t do this intentionally, but I came away just curious as to how my ultra square mother (and I mean that in the best way) survived that decade. I was SURPRISED when I finished this novel because she recommended it to me! If you like works set in the 70s, Mimi And has a terrific graphic novel about a diner called Over Easy: https://grabthelapels.com/2015/10/26/over-easy/

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