SEPP GREGORY HAS GREAT ABS. He was a beach volleyball player, then a player on a reality TV show, and then has his heart was broken by a bronzed co-star named Roxy, whose diet required lots of tequila and sex. During a follow-up TV series, shown around the country, Sepp recovered and fell for a doctor, but she, too, broke his heart. Now he’s on tour for his autobiography, Total Reality. Adoring fans, mostly women, form lines at bookstores in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. They want to see rippling stomach muscles. Some offer sex. But he can’t get it up. And there’s another problem. Sepp didn’t write the book. (And someone’s going to die.)
The four strangers brought together in Raw are at times so vivid that you want to meet them. The first time Sepp autographs a girl’s boob, I had to stifle an urge to Google him and get a good look at those abs. (To maintain them he does 500 crunches every day.) There are many moments of effervescence, such as when the girl with autographed cleavage comes down to the hotel gym, takes off all her clothes, and straddles Sepp while he’s doing his weight reps. Topless gyms, he muses, wouldn’t that be a great idea?
If Sepp is all wide-eyed hunk and Roxy an exotic snake, the ghostwriter of Sepp’s book, Curtis, is — in the details — perhaps the closest in form to the reader, or perhaps to the writer. For an important meeting with his agent in Manhattan, the underemployed Brooklyn dude buys a sports coat and can’t figure out how fast to sip his martini. He wears handmade boots and has a bump on his nose from when his girlfriend threw a German-English dictionary at him. And when he tries to get a byline for the book — or hopefully for the next one — we have one of Raw‘s most delicious postmodern backflips. “I just want some proof that I exist,” he says. “Otherwise it just doesn’t seem real.” His Pyrrhic victory? He gets an “As told to,” under the title of Sandy Panties: Roxy’s forthcoming “autobiography,” which he never gets a chance to write.
The fourth player in Raw is a critic that has written for The Rumpus and The Millions and refers to books like some kind of living millennial Amazon referral service. A dozen times or more she registers admiration for a word and cringingly considers its origins: “Harriet liked the word ‘postal.’ It was a newish word, coined after a series of violent workplace shootings by postal service employees who’d lost their marbles.”
But if Harriet dawdles in hipster bingo-land, Smith doesn’t. By the end, bodies start dropping, and we are literally in the middle of a new reality show, where fear and vanity bloom, when people’s best and worst instincts are revealed, and when Harriet’s woodenness warms to the heat of such frisson. There’s a particularly deft use of a “confessional booth,” and a not undelightful side trip to a wind-swept crater. But Smith’s scenes rarely slow down the fast (and fun) story.
There is a cruel tease in Sepp’s ghostwritten autobiography. The fictional Los Angeles Times review calls the book a “heart of darkness for the reality TV generation,” and Harriet herself sees “echoes of Nabokov mixed with a touch of the contemporary; a little Michael Chabon and Dana Spiotta ignited with the street argot of Junot Diaz,” and you’ll be thinking, please, can I read that? And the news offers the novel stiff competition, too. This year, David “Puck” Rainey — an early star of The Real World — was on felony probation, forbidden from leaving Los Angeles County.