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The wrong stuff

Superstud Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin Paul Feig Three Rivers Press: 296 pp., $13.95 paper

June 12, 2005|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of "The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories" and "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America."

Over the last few years, a curious subgenre has emerged within the nonfiction world: the memoir of self-mortification -- books predicated on an exposure of the author's flaws and humiliations.

Such narratives date back at least to "The Confessions" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but the recent glut is notable. A brief list would include "Fat Girl" by Judith Moore, "Goat" by Brad Land, "Devil in the Details" by Jennifer Traig, not to mention the works of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs.

"Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin" is full of the requisite embarrassments. It should come as no surprise that Paul Feig has seen his share of romantic misfortune. On his inaugural date, an REO Speedwagon concert, a belligerent drunk throws up on the back of his date's chair. Feig later sprains his neck attempting to perform a sex act on himself. And so on.

Feig -- the creator of the short-lived TV show "Freaks and Geeks" and author of a previous memoir, "Kick Me" -- presents himself as an affable geek throughout. Here, for instance, is how he describes the inauspicious opening to a date:

"As we were walking down a curving concrete stairway ... Nicole suddenly started doing chorus line kicks.... She started singing really loud and shaking her hands out to the side, like she was in a number from 'All That Jazz,' and she looked kind of ridiculous. However, since she seemed to be having fun and I didn't want to judge her too harshly, I laughed along with her.

"And then she fell down the stairs."

There's a certain grim pleasure to be had here, for a little while. The problem is that "Superstud" drags on for 300 pages. And as it does, Feig's prose grows wearying.

"Because she was swaying lightly to the music," he writes of one of the various women who will not have sex with him, "the ends of her hair were floating back and forth gently, brushing against her shirt as if they were ghostly fingers caressing her softly." Disregarding the three unnecessary adverbs, one is left to consider how hair might actually resemble fingers. This is lazy, imprecise writing, the sort that wouldn't survive an undergraduate workshop.

It gets worse. Toward the end of the book, Feig is rejected by a woman on whom he has an intense crush. "The only solace I took was in the enormous hoagie sandwich I was devouring, which smelled a little odd and tasted a bit strange but which seemed to be doing a good job filling the void in my body left by Maura, who had burst out of my chest more violently than the thing that came out of John Hurt's chest in 'Alien.' "

The hoagie -- brace for a shocker -- makes him sick.

" 'Oh God' was all I heard out of my mother regarding the mess I had just made of the most heavily used sections of our house as I dropped down in front of the toilet I had gone to the bathroom in my entire life and proceeded to vomit into it everything that had entered my body in the past twenty-four hours."

Why would an editor tolerate such muddled, amateurish prose? Why would a publishing house choose to put such work into the world? My bet would be because Feig has an audience based on his television work. He is, in other words, a commercial investment -- a reality TV show on paper.

Which is the whole problem. We already have enough of that rubbernecking in our lives. The reason we turn to literature -- and memoirs of this sort, in particular -- is in the hope that the author will discover some collective human wisdom in his pratfalls. Reading the best of these self-mortifiers, we are able, simultaneously, to experience and forgive our own legacies of shame. We are not simply watching the wretched flail; we are drawn into an authentic emotional experience. This danger of feeling is what makes the genre so exhilarating.

The standard defense at this point would be to argue that Feig is a comedy writer and that as such he shouldn't be held to any standard beyond entertainment. But humor is predicated on the shock of insight and Feig, sadly, has little insight to offer beyond "being a geek is no fun" and "everyone needs love." He doesn't seem to understand himself, or the people around him, and this opacity reduces his tale to a series of stupid human tricks.

As a guy who has suffered more than his share of amorous misadventure, and who tends toward self-deprecation as a coping mechanism, I was ready to embrace "Superstud." It is a profoundly disappointing book, not simply because of its failings, but because its failings were indulged in the expectation of making a profit. *

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