Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal

The vice beat is of perennial interest to writers and reporters, precisely because it's of such massive interest to readers. As Sagal writes near the end of this book, "God knows there are people who are having more fun than you, who are having more and better and frequent and more gymnastic sex than you are, who are enjoying adrenaline thrills and indulgences you can't even imagine" -- and the point of books and articles and TV shows like this are to poke around and see who those people are and what they're getting up to.

The Book of Vice is yet another tour of the world of sin, as usual written in a tone that suggests that the writer himself has no previous connection or understanding of any of this stuff -- perish the thought, he's an upstanding citizen, a quiet square type content to lick his stamp hinges or do something equally innocuous with his spare time -- but that he will penetrate this world and struggle through to its core in order to bring back salacious stories and anecdotes for his readers, who are innocent and normal, Just Like Him. This always feels like protesting too much -- Sagal wrote a whole book about sin, after all, and spent a good portion of the past decade researching and reporting and writing on the activities in this book, which shows he clearly has a certain interest in the subject -- but Sagal does come across as the required Normal Guy...though that does mean that the Normal Guys all deeply want to know what the non-normal are up to.

That's true, of course -- we do want to know what those people are up to in the other room, since we do have the lurking suspicion that everyone, or at least a lot of someones, are having massively more fun than we are -- and Sagal is polite enough not to rub our faces in it. But we are reading The Book of Vice because we want to know about swingers and porn and strip clubs and gambling and, perhaps, we'll pretend we're mostly interested in the non-salacious chapters in this book (on conspicuous consumption, lying, and the molecular gastronomy of the restaurant Alinea), but doing so would fool no one.

Sagal has that self-deprecating, I'm-just-a-mensch voice that goes best with this material, and The Book of Vice doesn't too obviously betray its origins as a series of magazine articles. (Books like this nearly always are assembled out of magazine articles, possibly because magazine editors are just as eager about sin as book editors are.) I'm afraid that The Book of Vice doesn't live up to its subtitle -- "Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)" -- since it assumes that the reader is, like Sagal, doomed to forever be outside the circle of people who do these things. It's a sobering thought, but, in this world, there are those who do and those who read about.

The individual chapters are each pleasant, short explorations of one particular kind of vice -- or, to be more precise, of one place or person that is an exemplar of that kind of vice. (Sadly, Sagal didn't cover the canonical seven sins, particularly since he comes back to Lust several times.) They're journalistic rather than expansive -- Sagal is looking at these people, in this place, and explaining what they're doing. (And, yes, then drawing the usual journalist's giant conclusions about everyone in the whole wide world.)

All The Book of Vice can really do is confirm your suspicion that there are people out there having more fun than you are -- but it does so entertainingly, and Sagal is a fine guide to the worlds of sin and depravity, particularly since he makes no claim to be part of that world. This is a frivolous book, but that only makes it more sinful itself -- and therefore better.

No comments:

Post a Comment