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.
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.
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.
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.