Weird, wacky and often well-written, the 1973 bestseller-turned-into-a-Diane-Keaton-film was based on a true story.
Back in my teens, when I would peruse the movie listings of the local newspaper (The Winnipeg Tribune) for titillating movie ads, one that captured my pre- (and post-) adolescent brain was Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
(You can watch Looking for Mr. Goodbar on YouTube!)
The film was released in 1977; I would have been 12. It starred Diane Keaton, and the ad showed Keaton in a dark, smokey bar, having a drink. I thought at the time that it was probably a cautionary albeit hot tale of searching for love in all the wrong places. If you asked me more recently, I’d probably hazard a guess that the Keaton character would be used as bait by a handsome cop (with whom she falls in love) to capture a serial killer or rapist preying on single women in the bars of NYC in the mid-seventies. Hoo-boy, was I wrong.
At least, that’s not what happens in the novel*. In Judith Rossner’s 1973 book Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the author kills off her main character, Theresa Dunn, in the first frame, so to speak; the book begins with a confession from Dunn’s murderer. From there, the story dials back to Dunn’s childhood and follows her through a series of mostly misbegotten affairs with lowlifes and the occasional too-nice-for-his-own-good guy that eventually leads her to picking up pretty much the very wrongest guy possible.
So, how does this artifact from the sexual revolution hold up today?
Well, on a basic level, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (the novel) is a very well-written potboiler that moves swiftly through the protagonist’s life and sexual development until the final, rather horrible climax. Throughout, the prose is by turns excellent, risible, and weird.
For example, in the latter category: “She was approaching, from too great a distance to know as yet where she was heading, the knowledge that her future did not contain him.” Pretty good, right? But then, later in the book, we have: “‘Love!’ she burst out. ‘I hate that word. I don’t even know what it is.'”
In the weird category, there’s a lot of sex stuff that strikes me as very definitely of its time, including this slightly off passage: “Something there was that couldn’t really be interested in a man who liked powerful, intelligent women. Something there was that wanted a man from Marlboro Country. Smart only in the way he subordinated his girls. Swaggering, suave. With a dick so long that you rode it as though it were a horse. A rocky horse.”
And yet it’s these captured-in-amber attitudes towards sex that are among the book’s most interesting aspects. In the same year that Looking for Mr. Goodbar appeared, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was published. But where Jong’s book was a more or less unapologetic ode to female sexuality (or so I understand), Rossner is writing in a pre-Flying world, where women’s sexuality is still something that is rarely taken seriously.
Early on, for instance, Rossner has college-age Theresa, embarking on her first affair (naturally enough, with her English teacher), look up “orgasm” in the dictionary to try to figure out if there’s something wrong with her.**
And then there’s this: “Katherine (Theresa’s sister) laughed when she said that, that she didn’t want to like sex any more than she did, but it was no joking matter to her; the morning papers weren’t into women’s sexuality yet and to admit the need when there was no man to fill it seemed to be telling the world that you did forbidden things to yourself to gratify that need.”
Finally, however, Looking for Mr. Goodbar is problematic for a very obvious reason: it’s about a woman who meets an untimely end as a result of behaviour that, according to the double standards of the time, would probably be deemed promiscuous.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar can certainly be read this way. As a friend told me when I mentioned that I was reading the book, “as I recall the author played on the old tired norms re: female sexual agency, i.e. if a woman enjoys sex and lots of it indiscriminately then she will be burned as a witch or stabbed to death in her grubby apartment. That was my take at the time.” (The friend admits she is basing this on the the movie, which she hadn’t seen since it was released.)
But to give Rossner*** some credit, I think the novel can also be read as a tragedy about a particular person for whom the sexual revolution went very wrong. And, in fact, the story is based on the 1973 murder of a 28-year-old New York City schoolteacher named Roseann Quinn****). Then again, maybe the two viewpoints aren’t irreconcilable.
*Which, peaking out from the paperback racks I used to peruse as a teen, also intrigued me. A few weeks ago, I picked up a pre-movie, Pocket Book 1976 edition for a few bucks at Value Village.
**The passage made me think of the line from the Woody Allen movie Manhattan (also starring Keaton), where a female character admits that her therapist told her she’s been having the wrong kind of orgasm. “Really?” the Allen character says. “Everyone of mine has been right on the money.” (Or something along those lines.)
***According to Wiki’s Judith Rossner page, the author was born in 1935. She published four novels before Goodbar, including the deliciously titled Any Minute I Can Split. That book prompted Esquire to commission a piece by her, which eventually turned into Looking for Mr. Goodbar. She would go on to write a number of other novels, including the successful 1983 book August.
****Rossner wasn’t shy about using details from Quinn’s life, including her teenage bout with polio, for Dunn.