When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, he was revealing more of his true self to his feisty British wife in the 19th century … not by granting her wish for long, heartfelt chats by the fireside at night, but by stripping off his frilly shirt and tossing it with a sideways wrist-action into the nearest hamper. For far too long, Paul had been compromising his innermost being, not to mention his lats, delts, traps, and pecs, by resorting to that last refuge of the scoundrel: clothing. And what had it won him? A hitch hunting aliens, a whirlwind werewolf weekend, and a couple of ditzy secretaries … hardly the universal acclaim every self-respecting pouty male model yearns for every time he wakes up in the morning! Something was missing, and as we’ve seen so far in our odyssey, Paul was slowly, gropingly coming to feel the rough outline of what he needed. It wasn’t hard: what he needed was to be himself, to breathe free, to go commando, as it were, ‘neath the trousers of life.
2008 would bring him the beginnings of that chance, after one initial stumble: Jayne Castle’s Dark Light, in which our Paulie is John Fontana, the new boss of the Crystal Guild of ghost-hunters on the distant planet Harmony.
It’s not that the book itself is a stumbling-block, not at all. Jayne Castle is one very experienced novelist who virtually never puts a foot wrong in telling a story – understandable when you consider that bestselling author Jayne Castle is also bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz, and that both those bestselling authors are also bestselling author Amanda Quick (like our hero, this is a writer who knows a thing or two about alternate personae). And this particular book’s premise is intriguing: a human-race colony world cut off from Earth and forced to contend with the not-always-natural phenomena of their adopted world Harmony. Castle’s craft can’t be faulted either: she knows from long experience to jump right into her plot and to involve her readers by showing rather than telling. Dark Light is a fast-paced, gripping-trashy read (and noticeably different in tone and pace than the novels of Krentz or especially those of Quick … Castle has managed the knack of making all her various pseudonyms sound slightly different, a feat worthy of applause wherever it might occur …).
No, the problem, from a Paul-o-centric point of view, is that the book clearly wasn’t written with our pouty prince in mind. The first faint hint of trouble comes in the repeated mentions of Fontana’s “intensely thoughtful expression,” but it’s this astonishing description that really causes the trouble:
He was a couple of inches above average height; not so tall as to tower over everyone else in the room, yet somehow you would always know that he was the man in charge. No one would ever call him handsome, Sierra thought, but that did not matter, not to her at any rate. What he was, was fascinating.
Fascinating he well may be, but … no one would ever call him handsome? That not only jars with our long acquaintance with Paul, perhaps the single most handsome himbo model to come down the pike in 100 long, lonely years, but it also jars with this book’s very cover, on which we see our boy looking chiselled and surly against the freakish lightning of an alien sky. And the instant we look at that cover, we see the most likely source of the dissonance: once again, our hero is wearing clothes – in this case a long trench coat draped over his smooth, rippling upper body. It’s a depressing sight, especially when we thought we’d put those dark days behind us forever.
But it’s only a minor stumble, and oh, how sweet the recovery that starts with Erin McCarthy‘s 2008 mass market edition of You Don’t Know Jack!
Relief floods through us before we’ve even opened the book, because of that scrumptious cover: here is one of the first gestures toward the quintessential Paul Marron cover, the kind of cover that has finally realized not only that excess clothing must not be allowed to clutter up our view of Paul but that nothing must be allowed to clutter up that view, including the vixens of the books themselves: in this resplendantly simple image, Paul essentially stands alone – the only addition is an adoring one, that creeping, gently appraising hand (is it a woman’s hand? So hard to tell…) resting lightly on Paul’s taut, rippling chest. The point of the image is clear: Paul himself is the gateway to all the pleasures of this book – those pleasures are summed up in his feathered hair, his stylish stubble, and his pert little body.
Of course, there’s more to the book than that allure, however animalistic. McCarthy began her writing career as a contest-winner, and that always gives things an extra jolt: contest-winners start their careers with a burst of approval denied to more drudging rejection-collectors, and it tends to show in their work. You Don’t Know Jack is a light, breezy tale about New York social worker Jamie Lynn, whose sassy gay friend Beckwith predicts that she will meet the man of her dreams very soon and spill food on him. These words are hardly lisped when she quite literally runs into Jonathon “Jack” Davidson on a crowded subway and smears his shirt in the spaghetti lunch he was carrying. She immediately notices that “he had a strong jaw, and he smelled like soap and tomatoes,” and then she takes in the sight of him:
He shrugged, the movement drawing her attention to his broad shoulders. She fought the urge to squeeze his biceps. Beckwith hadn’t warned her about the sexy factor. This guy was built like a race horse. No, that didn’t sound right. He was … was …lickable.
No condescending chit-chat about anybody being ‘fascinating’ here! What she runs into on that crowded subway is a solid little plug of pure Paul Marron, complete with devilish grin and irreverent sense of humor (at one point – not much later! – he “felt such profound sympathy for the pain Jamie and her breasts were in that he decided to give her an orgasm to distract her. Free of charge” – that’s – er, more or less – our boy!). There follows a quick series of encounters featuring clothes flying off in all directions, erections that last all day like Mentos, and more tongue-licking than the chameleons in a David Attenborough special. And because McCarthy, underneath her at times strained sauciness, is a winningly sentimental writer, there are also plenty of what our dear departed Oprah would have called “awww moments,” as when Paul/Jack says, “I’ve never believed in fate, or love at first sight, or anything that couldn’t be planned or quantified. I’m not an impulsive man. Until now. Until you, Jamie Lynn.”
Fate is certainly on the prowl as You Don’t Know Jack comes to an end. The year 2008 was ending as well, and ending on a strong note in the continuing adventures of our hero. But even his greatest fans wouldn’t have predicted just how big, how truly engorged, his career would become in 2009. We’ll take that topic in hand next time!