Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thy Neighbor's Wife by Guy Talese

This is the great smutty book of the baby-boom Seventies, one of the cornerstones of the mythology of the Me Decade and a major work in the canon of the New Journalism -- the exemplar of several things at once and tremendously popular and influential for many years. Coming to it thirty years later, though, the reader is struck by how diffuse it is, lacking a real through-line or conclusion. Perhaps there could never have been a conclusion to a book that was so thoroughly "the way we live now" -- we all did not stop living in 1980, and the way we lived kept changing, as it always does -- but Talese doesn't even make an attempt to sum the book up, just drags himself into the last chapter to explain what he wanted to do, or thought he was going to do, before bowing out quietly.

Thy Neighbor's Wife only explains itself in that last chapter, with Talese taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of all of the books that Thy Neighbor's Wife didn't become -- a consumer guide to massage parlors, Talese's own sexual autobiography, an in-depth look at the Sandstone Retreat, an examination of the intersection of nudism and sex -- before ending suddenly. Before that, it ran through twenty-five chapters, each one on a discrete topic, only slightly connected to the chapters before and after -- though he did circle back to a few topics: Sandstone, Hugh Hefner, and the place of Chicago in America's libido. Talese begins with a photo of Diane Webber (the model immortalized on the new edition) to tell the story of the late adolescence of a Chicago teen, Harold Rubin, who then disappears for several hundred pages. The narrative jumps from Rubin to Webber, on to Hefner, off to the couples who will later form Sandstone, and then wanders away into describing obscenity cases for a while (with the requisite thumbnail sketches of the then-current Supreme Court justices) before bouncing back to many of those earlier subjects for a while and bounding onward.

It's a scatter-shot approach, dizzying at times, and Talese's workmanlike prose moves it forward ploddingly, less leaping from topic to topic than building isolated foundations for various buildings in the same development. Talese hints at larger structures and plans, but refuses to speculate about them -- he'll only concern himself with the particular. One particular love affair of Hefner's is given in great detail, while a myriad others are left unmentioned or swiftly skimmed over -- probably because the one woman in question agreed to be interviewed by Talese, and the others didn't.

Talese wants to tell a grand sweeping story -- of how all of America changed its view of sex and love over the course of the decades of the '60s and '70s -- but to tell it entirely in particulars, and to tell it while keeping himself out of the story almost entirely (until that last chapter, unveiling his part in the proceedings like the Wizard of Oz). Unfortunately, the story is too big to be told that way -- Talese, from what he tells us here, never even visited most of the country, and didn't do any general or sociological research. He wants to present his subjects as exemplars of changing Americans -- but without saying what they are exemplars of, or how the exemplify anything.

And so Thy Neighbor's Wife comes across -- especially now, thirty years later -- as a collection of primary documents from the period, not a coherent single narrative. We see Hefner as he puts together the first year or so of Playboy, and then again at the height of its success in the early '70s -- but not how he got from one to the other, or what that meant (to him, or to America). We also see very little about what Playboy meant to the young men who read it -- and nothing about its place in the lives of the young women who appeared in it. In fact, if there's one single glaring flaw in Thy Neighbor's Wife, it's women -- they exist here almost entirely as objects, as beings seen from the outside. Talese is a man, and he gets into the heads of the men in this story -- from Hefner and Rubin to Al Goldstein of Screw and John Bullaro of Sandstone -- but not the women. The women here, as in the traditional American male view, control the access to sex, and are capricious and ultimately not understandable -- men can just try to figure out the rules so as to get as much sex as possible. And the problem then with this era was that the rules were changing radically and without warning -- that was good for men, since it generally meant that more sex was available, but it was also bad, since getting that sex required entirely different methods and plans.

I kept wanting Thy Neighbor's Wife to either stay on one subject long enough to cover it in depth, or to zoom out to a big picture once in a while to provide some context. (Sandstone was an outlier even in the sexual revolution -- but how many couples were swapping partners, in one way or another, in those mid-'70s years? How did the loosening of sexual morality affect people in the middle of their lives? How were the teens of the '70s different from those of the '50s, in ways that can be traced back to Playboy and Lady Chatterly and Henry Miller?) But Thy Neighbor's Wife is a book of reportage, not of analysis -- Talese never makes this clear, but his aim was to show what he saw, and not presume to make judgements about anything larger. And so Thy Neighbor's Wife is a book focused primarily on Chicago and Los Angeles, and even there on the Playboy Mansion and Sandstone, because that's where Talese spent the most time on the ground, talking to people. (And, as he coyly hints at in that last chapter, screwing around with at least a couple of those newly liberated young women before going back to his marriage.)

Thy Neighbor's Wife is still an important book, but all of the things that it did have been done since -- and mostly done better -- by many other books, each of them focusing on one aspect of that era and examining it in more depth. It's a decent starting point to the world of the sexual revolution, but it only leads on to other books that make more of an effort to answer the questions that Talese only raises.

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