Monday, August 25, 2008

Be careful what you wish for...

by David Henry Sterry
When my first memoir, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, became a bestseller I was living in the Bay Area. I got reviewed in the New York Times by Janet Maslin. I basically begged the San Francisco Chronicle, my hometown newspaper, on bended knee, to review the book. Their utter lack of interest was a sharp poisonous pebble that kept reappearing in my shoe no matter how many times I took it out. Now that I've moved away from the Bay Area I expected the San Francisco Chronicle would have even less interest in reviewing my next memoir Master of Ceremonies: a True Story of Love, Murder, Roller Skates and Chippendales. Naturally, now that I no longer live there, they reviewed the new book as soon as it came out.

I spent a year of my life writing rewriting writing rewriting writing rewriting writing rewriting writing rewriting writing rewriting and writing this book. In the end I did 20 drafts of this book.

Master of Ceremonies: A True Story of Love, Murder, Roller Skates and ChippendalesMeticulously crafting every word. Trying to make sure the comedy was funny, the tragedy tragic and the pathos pathetic. Imagine my bitter disappointment when Christina Eng, by all accounts a thoughtful, intelligent, articulate human being, chose not to review my book, but the book she thinks I should have written. It is one of the largest and most serious of the peeves I keep pets. At what point in our evolution did it become an accepted practice for reviewers to tell writers what books they should write. I worked so very hard to make my book full of rich, poetic, inventive language. I put so much time and effort into making sure the jokes are funny. Trying to be true to the sadness, the joy, the absurdity, the madness and the mundanity of this very particular time in New York City, in America, when it was raining man on ladies night and girls just want to have fun. You would not know very little of this from reading Ms. Eng's review. Apparently she wanted me to write a sociological study about the history and origin of Chippendales. I'm not a sociologist. I'm not a historian. I'm a memoirist. It's kind of like reviewing Angela's Ashes and berating Frank McCourt for not writing a social history of poor children in Ireland. Towards the end of the review she writes this: "Master of Ceremonies is a simply subjective account of the Chippendales, locked in a particular time and place." As if that was a bad thing. That's exactly what a memoir is. It's a book of memories. In the end I am happy that she quoted liberally from the book. At least my words get to succeed or fail on their own merit. So I am grateful for that. Look, I don't mind someone telling me I suck if they present a logical argument for why I suck. But to dismiss my book because it's not the book Ms. Eng wanted me to write, that's just don't seem fair.

The universe is a strange and marvelous place. Today I found another review of my book. This one is from Library Journal. Imagine my surprise and delight when Katherine Litwin actually reviewed my book. Not the book she wishes I'd written. The book I wrote. She actually talks about the language, the comedy, the tenderness, the story, the
craft involved in creating this book. It was especially gratifying to read this: "He avoids providing direct sociological commentary on the sexual power dynamics at play in Chippendales, preferring to let events speak for themselves." Which is exactly what I was trying to do. Present the moments, show the characters, as I saw them and lived them. To try to bring readers into this strange moment in time, to make them see and feel what it was like to be in the eye of the storm rolling around in my top hat while Rome burned.

Please, Ms. Eng, I implore you, when you review a book, review the book. Language, voice, style, craft. If the book is trying to be funny, does it succeed? Does it hold your interest? Are there interesting well-drawn characters? Is it well written? Do the pages turned easily? Stuff like that. Well, that's my two cents worth, and with inflation I owe you one.

(Enclosed find both reviews.)

Library Journal:
"Master of Ceremonies" is the dizzying, tender, and true story of a fledgling actor whose first break results in a two-year stint as the emcee at Chippendales, in this work that is resplendent with seedy glamour, hilarious backstage madness, and unflinching honesty. Sterry chronicles his adventures as a struggling comic after he is hired as the host of the popular all-male strip show Chippendales in the early Eighties. He more than delivers on the promise of his title, and readers looking for sex, drugs, and New York-style debauchery will find it in spades. There is a tabloid-level sleaziness inherent in the material, which Sterry utilizes for maximum entertainment value. He avoids providing direct sociological commentary on the sexual power dynamics at play in Chippendales, preferring to let events speak for themselves. There are two underlying love stories, one between Sterry and a coworker, and one between Sterry and his craft; both enrich the narrative with genuine heart. Sterry possesses an engaging writing style, and fans of his earlier memoir, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, will not be disappointed. Recommended for large public library collections and cultural and media studies collections.-Katherine Litwin, Chicago Library Journal (07/15/2008)

San Francisco Chronicle:
Sex sells. That much we know. For the Chippendales, it sells seats. It sells calendars. It exchanges fantasy for cash tips. In "Master of Ceremonies: A True Story of Love, Murder, Roller Skates & Chippendales," David Henry Sterry recalls experiences he had hosting the popular male strip show during the mid-1980s in New York City. He describes what he saw onstage, behind the scenes and in the "tiny, mirrored dressing room ... full of beautiful, shaved-smooth Men either putting on or taking off clothes," and "the bad-cologne, musky-funk, semen'n'sweat smell" around him, "all soured from not having had a proper scrub for a very long time." The passages are compelling, and often wickedly raunchy. Unfortunately, Sterry's overall narrative proves ultimately disappointing.

At 25, Sterry loaded his possessions into an old green Toyota Corolla, left San Francisco and moved to New York City. He struggled as an actor and comedian, lining up auditions when he could and scouring the notices. One day, on a lark, he answered an ad for the Chippendales; they needed a master of ceremonies. To his amusement, he got the job. Though he was "a reasonably pleasant-looking fellow," he found himself intimidated from the start by the tremendously toned male dancers, with their "bulging bulges, mountain peak pecs, 6-pack man-rack abs and cheekbones for miles." Next to them, he felt like "a frog." The self-consciousness helps to establish his underdog persona, and endears him to us. We learn to trust his sincerity. Sterry takes us through the details of his debut with the Chippendales, the adrenaline that night in the club, "packed and saturated with excited expectation," the part he played in keeping the predominantly female audience entertained, and the stumbles he inevitably made. (As the master of ceremonies, he was the only one onstage who kept his clothes on - his costume included a top hat, tuxedo and roller skates - and the only one who ever talked.)

In quick prose, he re-creates the atmosphere around him. He writes, for example, of a dancer he calls Slick Rick, who, like the other men, flirted devilishly with the women in the audience throughout his routine. They in turn tipped generously. "Hundreds of greenbacks sprout up and wave in the wind. Slick Rick harvests the cash crop with kisses. A beautiful bride-to-be shoves bills into his G-string like it's a bank and she's making direct deposits." He writes also of the Snowman, who had "this little insinuating smile on his face, like he knows something I don't know, and I'm sorta stupid for not knowing it. He's the kinda guy who swaggers even when he's standing still." Sterry allows us to see what he saw and to feel what he felt. What the author doesn't do, however, is adequately discuss the development of Chippendales. We want further insight, for example, on how the group originated and evolved over the years and what its popularity means in a cultural and social context. He does mention Chippendales director and choreographer Nick de Noia, of course, and his business partner, Steve Banerjee. In fact, Sterry begins the narrative with the day-after police investigation of de Noia's mysterious death. But we only get glimpses of the true makeup of their relationship. "Master of Ceremonies" is a simply subjective account of the Chippendales, locked in a particular time and place. We are given plenty of show, but not nearly enough substance.

David Henry Sterry will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, October 13 at 7:00 pm. Don't miss it!

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