Adventures in American Literature #5: Last Tango in Brooklyn

Kirk Douglas (b. 1916) – Last Tango in Brooklyn (1994)

Yes, I have done battle with another Kirk Douglas novel. (I would have preferred to try Dance with the Devil’s sequel, The Gift (1992), but Last Tango in Brooklyn was more readily available.) Similar to Dance, Last Tango in Brooklyn features a romance between a man and a woman several decades apart in age; the gap in Dance was between a man of 55 and a woman of 20, while here in Last Tango, the man is 69-going-on-70 and the woman is 34.

The writing once again clearly draws from Douglas’s own life, despite the prose occasionally being crafted in a wishful thinking sort of way. The most obvious similarity is that the protagonist is involved in a helicopter accident, much like Douglas was in 1991. On a lighter note, early in the novel there’s this amusing description of the male protagonist: “Ben laid out his clothes for the day: neatly pressed khakis, tailored to show off his slim hips and flat stomach, a blue-and-green-striped polo shirt that fit snuggly [typo!] over his muscled chest and arms, and green socks to match. Snappy.”

(Please tell me you laughed too.)

The beginning of the next paragraph: “As he dressed, he glanced in the mirror. Staring back was a steel-gray mane of hair that matched the carefully trimmed mustache. That face belonged to an older man (a good-looking older man, but older, it was a fact), yet the body did not, not by a long shot.” Remind you of someone you know? (In case the reader didn’t get the message, the photo of Douglas on the back of the dust cover shows him with the aforementioned carefully trimmed mustache.)

I have to give Kirk Douglas a bit of credit for objectifying men with the same descriptive language as the average female romance writer. I can’t imagine that most male authors would be able to do that. (They would probably be embarrassed to describe a man’s “slim hips,” much less those of a senior citizen.) Last Tango, like Dance with the Devil, also features some sex, though this time the scenes don’t seem so gratuitous within the narrative. If not for the fact that the male protagonist is Jewish and of a generation which knows Yiddish, details which would be unusual in your typical romance novel, you could just as easily have put a female romance writer’s name on the book cover and I would have believed it.

Douglas might not be the next Great American Novelist, but his books are definite page-turners. Some aspects of Last Tango are distracting – there’s adultery, there’s murder, there’s a friendly nun – but you’ll undoubtedly keep reading just to see what happens next.

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