Gingham Blindfold by Eric Rohr

After completing an internship at the famous music magazine Record Shelves (read Rolling Stone), and scandalizing conservatives by running a story about youth masturbation rates in a Wyoming college newspaper, twenty-something wannabe rock journalist Ethan Ames was on track for greater things. Resisting his father’s wish that he would one day takeover from him as editor of Laramie’s Daily Democrat, Ethan instead gave in to his wanderlust. But life as a freelance rock journalist hasn’t exactly panned out. After months without work, he’s taken a job editing copy for a minor San Diego daily. He followed his girlfriend, Kristen, out to California when she landed a junior position in PR shortly after graduation. Things aren’t going well for Ethan, professionally or personally.

Taking out the trash one night at Rancho Margarita, the high-density apartment complex where he and Kristen live, Ethan finds a discarded pornographic magazine: the fetchingly titled Tight Horizons. Thumbing through a soiled porno is more promising than returning to the couch and Desperate Housewives with Kristen, so Ethan crouches in the garbage enclosure and takes a peek. And it’s there that he finds her:

I noticed her body first. I can’t pretend otherwise. Her breasts were fleshy and round, the edges of her pink nipples blended into her baby-smooth skin. She wore gingham panties. They were red, the kind with white lace around the waist. She was reclined on thick, emerald grass. The feathery ends of her blond hair, reddened by the looming sunset behind her, hung over her shoulders. Her mouth was slightly opened and nearly formed into a smile. She didn’t look directly at the camera, but off to the side, to the horizon. Carefully, and repeatedly, I studied her eyes, the arches of her cheekbones and the crinkles on her forehead, the thin creases extending from her eyelids, the color of her skin. I learned her name from the blurb that interrupted the tranquil scene: “Drive your tractor through Indira’s barn doors!”

Unsure if it’s really the possibility of rescuing this woman from a life of exploitation (she certainly doesn’t look miserable), or only of touching those breasts, Ethan makes a decision: he’s going to find Indira. Armed only with her crumpled image, an implacable erection, and the help of a hotshot journalist named Liz in a Porsche 956 Speedster, Ethan sets out to find the woman of his dreams…

There probably isn’t a guy over fourteen who hasn’t at one time or another fantasized about meeting – and ravaging – the object of his porn-fueled fantasies. It’s a frankly irresistible premise. But this is not a pornographic novel. Far from it. It’s not even about pornography, really (though the perils of an unregulated adult entertainment industry do get a look-in). Eric Rohr’s first novel is actually an insightful look at what happens when dreams eclipse reality. Or, as the cover copy puts it, when “an obsession over how life should be gets in the way of how life really is.”

Ethan finds himself in a place most of us reach in our twenties: life isn’t unfolding quite as perfectly as he’d planned. Record Shelves wasn’t all he’d imagined, his vision for his career is demonstrably unrealistic, and relationships are proving to be a lot of hard work. In pursuing Indira, Ethan isn’t pursuing a woman: he’s chasing the transformation of his own life. It becomes a journey of self-discovery. But don’t worry, this isn’t some Oprah-esque tale about “Remembering Your Spirit.” In charting Ethan’s quest, Rohr covers a lot of complex ground: intimacy, power, relationships, consent, and the often wildly divergent positions men and women take on these issues. It’s a surprising and engaging read.

It’s a well-crafted one, too. Rohr hooks you from the opening (see Kristen Tsetsi’s Page One Review), and writes with a smooth, journalistic voice that’s clear, accessible and entirely appropriate. He uses time shifts very effectively to bring in elements of the backstory without it ever feeling like exposition, much in the seamless manner of Philip Roth. And it’s a good length: at around 45,000 words it’s a short novel, but it doesn’t need to be a long one. It’s the perfect length for this kind of coming-of-age tale.

Rohr, a graphic designer as well as a writer, did the cover and layout himself. The result is a great looking book. (He’s also created a slick little website – ginghamblindfold.com – that cleverly employs the same branding.) There are a few typos, but otherwise this is indistinguishable from traditionally published work. Self-published authors take note: this is the standard you need to meet. Browsing through Amazon, most readers would never imagine this book is self-published – and that’s a good thing. Hardcore independent publishing enthusiasts might find that statement heretical, but while ever “self-published” remains synonymous with “dubious” in the mind of the general reader, passing for what they see as “the real thing” is advised.

If there are weaknesses here, one is the plotting. Ethan’s search for Indira drives the action, and I was looking forward to seeing precisely how a young man of limited means might go about finding her. But there were a few too many helpful coincidences for my liking (mainly around co-worker Liz). Secondly, there are a couple of scenes – a job interview and a late-night confrontation with sleazy porn kingpin, George Conroy – that feel too much like television. I felt like I’d seen these moments a hundred times before. But that’s no big deal. They’re just a few moments in a novel that actually offers some wonderfully original scenes – a professional porn shoot at a suburban house, for one – and a couple of truly lovely sequences towards the end that I can’t describe without giving too much away. In one, coincidence is used to much better effect. Overall, this is a well-written novel from a writer of obvious literary talent.

Dreams are great motivators, but they rarely come true. Even when we do get precisely what we want, it’s often not what we expected. Dreams are visions of our future, but they’re also a kind of blindness. To the extent that they take us out of the present moment and away from our real selves, they limit our capacity to see the possibilities for human connection and happiness that surround us all the time. This is something most of us learn the hard way, if at all. Rohr’s novel explores this theme with sensitivity, humour and considerable grace. It’s a book about realizing that life is not simply a matter of seeing all of your dreams come true, and discovering that being open to the way things are is the first real step on the path to happiness. That’s also called growing up.

  • Shane

    How on Earth do you make your book available on Target.com?

  • Shane

    Also, that is a slick cover, but I actually have a major problem with it. After reading a sample on Amazon and then looking at the cover again I wonder if it matches the tone of the novel. If I were to come across it at a bookstore (or Target.com) I’d immediately think “Chick Lit,” and instantly move on. It looks like a clone of any of the dozen books on my mom’s bookshelf. Oh look, another woman disenchanted with her humdrum marriage to a nice but boring mortgage broker!

    There’s no question that Rohr’s a talented designer, but if the book focuses on male issues, especially if it touches up against things like pornography, then I’d have expected something more likely to be mistaken for Bret Easton Ellis or Nick Hornby- in fact if it was a handsome male slacker driving the car it would look like Hornby and would have been better suited to draw attention from that audience.

    It also bothers me that the passenger door is open, but that’s because I’m weird. Maybe the passenger door is open because she’s waiting for a handsome slacker to jump in.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I think the cover captures Ethan’s fantasy world, which I kind of like, given the book’s title and themes. But that’s obviously a retrospective judgement you can only make after reading the book, so you do make a good point: male readers might well take the same view you did and move on.