Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Working Stiff, by Grant Stoddard

Working Stiff is an embarrassing book to carry around. The subtitle—The Misadventures of an Accidental Sexpert—is in a small enough font that I could hope people passing by my park bench might not be able to make in out in mid-stroll, but the image of a man in business suit sans pants, the name “Grant Stoddard” printed on a white circle covering that certain sensitive bit just south of the midsection…well, it makes it pretty obvious what the book is about. It’s about Grant Stoddard, that is, and about how often in the last few years he’s had sex. You can see another picture of him shirtless on the back cover, this time wearing a furry bomber cap.

Readers of this blog might hope that someday I will be able to wean myself away from books falling under the genre of “memoirs by the hideously self-absorbed,” but (as evinced by the post on How Sex Works posted below), I’m a sucker for any material that’ll make me angry about sex. And this book did make me angry—or, at least, disturbed. This reaction must show that I’m not an ideal member of the book’s target audience. Look at these inside cover blurbs: “Grant Stoddard’s debut is a sex-memoir with a heart: an inspirational true story of how to ‘make it’ in New York, in every sense of the word,” says Jessica Cutler (apparently an author); “Peek under the dirty sheets of Stoddard’s hilarious debut, and you’ll find a brave, moving, and, yes, seductive story of a young man’s struggle to find his way in a strange city, a foreign country, and an unforgettable age,” comments David Goodwille (another random author).

The book pretty much delivers on these blurbs, on one level. In the first few chapters, Stoddard pulls all the stops to convince you, the reader, that he’s just another nerdy bloke who, before his years in the media, had the same lack of success in getting lucky as anyone else. Even in the introduction, this annoying “jes’ folks” streak starts. He’s preparing for his last segment of “I Did It for Science,” the weekly column on Nerve.com for which he would go out to collect novel sexual experiences and write about them, and for this special closer, he’s chosen to literally ‘go fuck himself’—or, more precisely, to have a lady-friend peg him with a plaster-cast of his own penis. “Holding an accurate facsimile of my own member in my hands,” he writes, “it’s hard to believe how little action the thing actually saw over the course of its first twenty-four years. Since then, of course, it’s played a starring role in some of my greatest adventures.” When, a page later, he describes himself as “acutely aware that [he] was at the end of something big,” it feels like Mr. Stoddard (the groaner pun aside) is implying that after his years of randyness described in the text, he’s maybe back to his sweet-old self once again. No need to fear this guy. He’s a nice kid who got involved in some intercontinental oddities, who is none the worse for it.

Except, after the first few chapters, that nice kid starts to look pretty creepy indeed. Sure, until somewhere around pg. 60, we only hear about his working-class English background and his first American girlfriend and such associated adventures. But is it really so strange that the only person he bangs in this period of time is Becky, that American girlfriend? The Americans seem to think so. “You should be livin’ the life, balls-deep in strange ass every fuckin’ night of the week,” a friend tells him, pg. 58, in response to the astounding fact of his hitherto monogamy. Within a startlingly short period of time, this comes to pass. He wins an internet pop-culture quiz on Nerve.com (his future employer) that qualifies him for a night of intercourse w/ Lisa Carver, who had been blogging her sex life. Long story short, Grant’s oral skills (ugh), via Carver’s verbal depiction, get him a reputation in NYC, and before long, again on Carver’s word, he’s landed a job at the website as the manager of the student interns.

From there, it’s a short jaunt to Grant the womanizer, responsible for two interns leaving after failed sexual experiments with him. Soon, he’s started his column, and in the city, things move fast. Flash forward to pg. 125:

“Up until now the “new things” I had tried included having sex with my girlfriend on the subway, product testing a cock ring, Frenching a guy, being an extra in a porn movie, and competing in an amateur stripping contest in front of two hundred drunk and very aggressive women. Six months earlier, I was the perennial virgin, a shy, inexperienced, terribly self-conscious immigrant nerd, destitute and a gnat’s eyelash from throwing in the towel on my American excursion and fleeing home with my tail between my legs. Now my name was synonymous with being a willing participant in perverse sex acts throughout the tristate area. Unbeknownst to me, it became my calling.”

Huh. There’s a lot to pick apart there. Note his “perennial virgin” comment, which is nutty, if only for the reason that during his entire time in America, he was consistently having sex. It seems to me that he doesn’t exactly have a lot to complain about. Can someone who is “terribly self-conscious” immediately switch over to become someone who is comfortable with his name being used in a sex column? Can we concede that there might be a subtle difference between the terms ‘destitute’ and ‘horny’?

The weirder part of all this, though, is that last comment about how the lifestyle of being a “willing participant in perverse sex acts” had “become [his] calling.” This sounds very much like something out of my undergraduate college viewbook, and the dissonance of the tone with the subject matter is striking. Nice people, when speaking of ‘discovering calling,’ will mention things like “helping underprivileged youth,” or, “performing needed services.” But what we’ve witnessed is how a young man has gone from moving to America specifically for his girlfriend, Becky, to being something of a roving deviant. There are attempts at ironic self-consciousness in all of this; he is willing to admit how strange a thing it is for him to have women wanting to experience him, merely by dint of his minor celebrity. By pg. 152, we are offered an awkward depiction of his perfunctory deflowering of a virgin who offers herself to him, just to get the old sex thing out of the way. He finishes the deed quickly and goes to sleep to avoid discussing his sub-par performance. “Not long ago,” he muses, “I had been in her position. But somewhere along the line, I’d allowed myself to feel deserving of the hype and become a menace to women everywhere.”

For the rest of the book, Grant dodders from place to place, wittily commenting on everything he sees. And he sees a lot—orgies, ‘Leather Camp’ with the bondage crowd, LA. Eventually, he gets fired by Nerve.com for infringing on his contract when he attempts to turn his column into a TV show. The book’s ending is rather weak, a depiction of his aimless days waiting for VH1 executives to turn him into a brand as he docilely complies. When that falls through, he’s excited to return to Manhattan to see what he might become, this time. Fin.

I suppose it’s hardly worth mentioning, but to me the strangest aspect of the book was its wan amorality. I could call it that, or cognitive dissonance on the part of the author, who too many times repeats that he has never had a one-night stand, despite copious quoted evidence to the contrary. After growing up in Sioux County, IA, where God is real and sexual actions are thought to be moral actions, I have an inbred inclination to think that any suffering that Stoddard has experienced is merely a natural outcome of his wrong actions. But then I shake my head and repeat to myself, “They’re different actions, Dave, not quite wrong,” a hundred times, still leaving myself deeply unconvinced. It’s weird, because even after my framework for condemnation has been stripped away, I still love to do it. Damn you, Grant Stoddard, and your liberal New Yorker-ness!

I guess Stoddard’s not the only one around here suffering from some brain frissures…