Without Wax by William Walsh – review

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ 
Title: Without Wax: A Documentary Novel
Author: William Walsh
Genre: Literary Fiction
URL: Casperian Books
Price: US$15.00
Additional Information: Explicit sex, explicit sex talk, non-traditional structure.
Summary (from the publisher): Interweaving traditional narrative with consumer profiles, faux interviews, court depositions, and a film script, Without Wax is a fictional biography that provides an intriguing glimpse into the adult entertainment industry.

My Review: In doing some Google research on this novel, I came across many different meanings attributable to the title of the book, but the one that intrigued me the most was one I came across first in the Urban Dictionary (though you can find it elsewhere):

Back in the day when people still made sculptures, some artists made mistakes. To correct these mistakes when making a sculpture of stone, they would use a colored wax to fill in the mistake. A truly great sculpture was described as being “without wax.” This term went on to be used for anything that was authentic or flawless. It is also the root of the word sincerely. Sin – without and Cera – wax.

I found this description incredibly applicable to this work, not because it is a perfect novel (what novel is?), but because author William Walsh has created an immensely likable, utterly sincere titular character, Wax Williams, a male porn star and the “8th wonder of the world” due to his huge endowment.  Now, I’m sure John Holmes will spring immediately to mind (well, for those of us old enough to know who John Holmes was), but while Wax’ back-story is not the most happy to be found, it is certainly not tragic, and therein lies the charm of this novel.

In writing a novel about porn, it would be easy to fall into the trap of turning the story into an indictment against the industry it portrays. An author could load it down with heartbreaking, abusive histories for the characters who have become stars in the biz, or worse yet, create cardboard characters, stereotypes that never amount to anything but a bad C-grade movie.  Yet, like a documentarian and true to the non-traditional structure of the book, Walsh steps back, views it all through the lens of the “camera,” and never imposes his own moral or ethical judgment on the characters he has created.  The result impressive, with characters that actually do seem like human beings, particularly when they are at their worst.

The plot (such as it is) revolves around Wax who is shooting (pardon the pun) his swan song in the industry, what was intended to be a jerk-off video featuring just Wax and an impressive sex doll.  Wax has saved his money, invested wisely and is ready to retire, lead something of a normal life.  This isn’t to say that Wax is bitter about his life.  Quite the opposite.  Wax is an even-keeled sort of guy, a star not only because of his impressive size, but because his is genuinely down to earth, a quality which makes all of his fans feel like they know him, as if they have a special connection with their idol.  In short, Wax has “it” and the “it” is far more than what is hanging between his legs. Women want to be wooed by him, and men want to be him.  But, when it turns out that the man who created Wax’ porn persona–manager Lyle Mammon–is the financing behind the final video, the plot of the porn is changed, and Wax find himself–if even from a distance–entangled with the man he wanted to get away from.  And, just when you think even that will iron itself out, Wax discovers that his potential retirement might be derailed when a young man who damaged himself using a Wax Williams sex toy files suit against Wax and his former manager.  Will Wax ride off into the sunset?  You have to read it to find out.

Walsh expertly crafts the novel in the non-traditional format, writing it as if it were indeed a documentary.  He uses “clips” of interviews with those in the industry who knew Wax as well as interviews with fans, video scripts, and testimonials.  Court depositions are introduced, and even traditional prose is woven into the story.  Surprisingly, very little of the story is told from Wax’ perspective, which adds a nice little bit of tension to the piece as we’re never quite sure if our hero will be alive or dead when we get to the last page (especially considering the title). While one would think this back and forth between different styles of storytelling would make for a schizophrenic novel, Walsh handles it very well. He stays committed to whichever style he happens to be writing in at the time, and each section flows easily into the next because the subject never veers far from the story of Wax.

What Walsh also does wisely in employing this literary conceit is allow we the readers to get multiple perspectives on each character introduced. For each person who adores Wax the celebrity with unwavering faithfulness, we also get the personal reminisces which give Wax the depth he needs, show him to be a man who may not necessarily be a sad person, but someone who wants to move on.  So, instead of a perfect man, a man without wax, we get a man who has his fair share of wax.  Likewise, for every person in the novel who finds Wax’ manager, Mammon, a manipulative misogynist, a user who met a boy with a peculiar talent and exploited him, we have characters who give us examples of the other side of the man, his humor, the man who knows exactly who he is and has no illusions about it.  While Mammon could have easily have been made into a cartoonish villain, instead we get a character with a surprising amount of depth.  He is likable despite his foibles.

Now this isn’t to say that there isn’t a fair amount of manipulation of Wax.  Everyone uses Wax one way or another. Everyone wants something from him.  But Wax is a man who knows what he is to others and accepts it. The manipulation runs throughout the book and this particularly hits home when the female doctor who is going to help Wax with one aspect of his retirement enters the picture.  But it isn’t done with a sledgehammer.  Walsh does it all subtly, and we as readers are never manipulated into feeling sorry for Wax.  Best of all, never once does Walsh resort to demonizing one character for the benefit of the other.  It really is quite masterful.

Now, if I have to point out one problem I did have with the novel it would be in the relationship Wax has with his very first screen star, the beautiful Renee Salmon. We are told throughout the story that Renee and Wax were likely the loves of each other’s life, but we never are really shown this, and, in fact, of all the characters Renee is the least developed.  As a result, the impact of them not being together never really worked and the event that Renee goes through near the end of the novel–a turn that should definitely garner either an emotional or physical reaction from the reader–falls flat and seems superfluous.  But in the big picture of this novel, this is a minor, minor quibble.

For those who have problems with non-stop talk or honest depictions of sex and the sex industry, this book might prove too much for you.  The talk is frank, but it never feels exploitative, and is not presented, necessarily, for titillation.  It is used well, a shop-talk aspect of the book that is integral, matter-of-fact and revealing of the characters. It’s realistic and natural, and, one might say, about as erotic as listening to two accountants talk debits and credits.

Perhaps the most interesting and artful part about Without Wax is that it truly does function exactly like a documentary.  When you are done, you’ve been given enough of their life stories to feel that you’ve made a connection with these people.  You’ve come to know them or love them or despise them for their words. But what one also walks away with–no matter how likable Wax might be, no matter how dynamic you might find Mammon–is the nagging feeling that you don’t really know them.  And in a novel that is as much about celebrity and objectification as it is about the porn industry, that’s a remarkable feeling to be left with.

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