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All the Dirty Parts


All the Dirty Parts

A professional colleague of mine just could not believe the focus of Daniel Handler’s new novel, ALL THE DIRTY PARTS. After all, Handler is well known as the pen behind an extremely popular series of books for young readers. But what many people --- including my colleague --- don’t realize is that Handler has had a parallel career writing books that are most definitely for adults. Previous topics include incest and broadly comedic violence --- so perhaps it shouldn’t be quite so shocking that Handler’s latest novel for adults is, as the title suggests, a sexually explicit glimpse into the inner life of a high school boy.

It would have been easy, or at least easier, for Handler to paint his protagonist, Cole, with either a broadly comic or a villainous brush. But despite its slim size and fairly lighthearted premise, ALL THE DIRTY PARTS is a novel with surprising depth and thoughtfulness. Cole is perhaps a typical teenage boy; he opens the whole narrative (in one of the few passages I can comfortably quote here) by saying, “Let me put it this way: This is how much I think about sex. Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.”

"ALL THE DIRTY PARTS is, given its narrator and subject matter, unapologetically raunchy, blunt and often very funny."

Considering that the narrative takes place entirely as Cole’s internal monologue, that means that the narrative is (again, as the title suggests) nearly all about sex. Unlike many of his peers, though, Cole has done more than just think about sex; he’s actually had sex with 11 girls (he’s “getting a rep”), according to his classmates. These girls, in their way, have shown Cole a range of sexual experiences and seemed to enjoy it (nearly) as much as he did, but, as he recognizes, “afterwards…they felt bad about it sometimes.”

Cole’s friend, Alec, always wants to hear the details of these encounters, and their shared confidences about fantasies, their shared porn watching, soon evolves into something even more intimate. And when Cole develops something --- maybe more than just lust --- for a new girl at school, Grisaille, not only his relationship with Alec but also (possibly) his attitude toward the opposite sex might become more complicated as well.

ALL THE DIRTY PARTS is, given its narrator and subject matter, unapologetically raunchy, blunt and often very funny. It would be easy to read Handler’s book on a surface level, purely for the kind of cheap thrills that Cole so gleefully describes. But there’s actually a lot more to it if readers pause to reflect on the short, paragraph-length chunks that compose the narrative. Cole’s story considers the nature of consent, the fluidity of sexual identity and the development of empathy, among many other topics both serious and profane. 

Sure, Handler’s novel should not be confused with his children’s books, but here he proves that even a seemingly frivolous topic and a seemingly buffoonish narrator can provide material for reflection, sympathy and understanding.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 8, 2017

All the Dirty Parts
by Daniel Handler

  • Publication Date: August 27, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1632868059
  • ISBN-13: 9781632868053