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Carnal knowledge

Working Stiff The Misadventures of an Accidental Sexpert Grant Stoddard Harper Perennial: 292 pp., $13.95 paper

January 07, 2007|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of the short-story collections "My Life in Heavy Metal" and "The Evil B.B. Chow."

GRANT STODDARD's "Working Stiff" opens with a bang. "I held it in my hands," he tells us. "Once detached from my body, my genitalia seemed much more impressive. Bouncing it in my left palm and then in my right, I reckoned its weight and volume. I held it closer to my face, closer than hours of stretching, straining, and forcefully curving my spine had ever gotten me before.

" 'It's perfect,' I kept saying to myself in between gulps of supermarket merlot."

I won't ruin the suspense as to what gets done with this beloved replica, although I'm sure the more imaginative among you can guess.

Stoddard's cheeky memoir is, in some sense, our era's inevitable literary artifact: a combination of self-mortification, sex and immigrant yearning. The basic narrative goes like this: Geeky virginal Brit arrives in New York City with no prospects, lands a gig as a sex columnist for an online magazine and performs a great number of weird, humiliating acts. Humiliating as in, say, having to fornicate with yourself. Or being tied down and forced to perform at a "leather camp" retreat. Or indulging in a practice known as sploshing, wherein hurled food serves as the central erotic activity.

As Stoddard puts it himself, in one of his winningly self-deprecating moments, "To my absolute horror, I was billed ... as a sexpert and was respectfully treated as such. The idea of Grant Stoddard the sexpert seemed absolutely surreal to me, and positively ludicrous to anyone I'd slept with. Just a year ago I was the sexual nonstarter. Now I was being heralded as somebody with a better than good idea of how to give women sexual pleasure and spent a lot of my time perpetrating that myth in several media."

Still, as a fan of Stoddard's column -- which, under the banner "I Did It for Science," ran on the website Nerve.com (to which I'm an occasional contributor) -- I found the book disappointing. It lacks the easy wit and unabashed details of those dispatches. In fact, it lacks those dispatches. Whether by choice or legal circumstance, Stoddard has left much of his best material on the cutting-room floor.

Instead, he provides us with an exhaustive history of his life as a wide-eyed villager in the big city. The particulars feel real enough -- couch surfing, scrounging old bagels and so on -- and his prose is generally sharp. But I couldn't help feeling that Joan Didion had already covered this material (and far more memorably) in her 1967 essay "Goodbye to All That."

What's more, the sex that Stoddard does include is not particularly compelling. He races through assorted one-night stands, devotes a dozen pages to the unsuccessful pursuit of a French girl he doesn't seem to like especially and manages to make an orgy sound downright boring. Perhaps this is the drawback to working as a sex columnist -- the thrill of the illicit withers.

But I would argue that it is Stoddard's job, as the author of what purports to be a sexual memoir, to immerse us in the complex and conflicting emotions that accompany our carnal desires. And it is only when he does this -- when he runs up against his own vulnerability -- that his account becomes something more than a diversion.

During his encounter with the splosher, for instance, he is ordered to hurl verbal abuse (as well as yogurt and eggs) at his victim. "I knew that Jonathan really wanted to be humiliated and abused," he writes, "but as the words left my lips I wanted to recall them all. I imagined Jonathan mincing around D'Agostino, spending his emergency savings on food that would ultimately be matted into his copious tufts of chest hair, and I pitied the poor man."

Or consider this early scene in which Stoddard manages to bed a much more experienced lover. One would expect him to feel triumphant, but his reaction is far more jarring. "When it was over I was immediately aware that I was having sex with someone that I had no degree of ownership over. She was someone else's in a big house with a big yard and two cars and a kid and I would be going home stealing bagels and willing myself to stay in the country in the face of common sense."

It is this sort of troubled introspection that is the coin of the realm when it comes to memoirs. The writer either faces down his own darkest truths or descends into the flashy narcissism that is the default setting in the age of Oprah. And this seems especially important, given Stoddard's subject matter. We are still living in a country, after all, that demonizes sexuality or uses it as a marketing tool (sometimes both at the same time) while ignoring its essential humanity.

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