January 26, 2009

Book review: "Master of Ceremonies," by David Henry Sterry

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Master of Ceremonies, by David Henry Sterry
Master of Ceremonies
By David Henry Sterry
Canongate / ISBN: 978-1-84195-876-7

As regular readers know, I am spending the week finally making my way through a whole series of books I found only so-so, some of which have been in my reading list for months as I've instead cherry-picked other titles from the always huge stack. Take today's book, for example, David Henry Sterry's Master of Ceremonies, a true-life memoir with a hook you'd think couldn't fail -- it's his account of a short period from his youth, when he acted as emcee for the notorious male stripclub Chippendales, back in the late 1970s early 1980s when it was at its cultural dominance. See, it can be hard sometimes for the young whippersnappers to remember this, but Chippendales was actually a much bigger deal politically than you might think a cheesy male stripclub could be; it was literally the first time in history that women had ever been invited to be the leering, obnoxious audience members of such an environment, instead of the objects of beauty being leered at, an empowering moment according to '80s second-wave feminists, one of the developments they argue that ushered in the second wave of feminism to begin with.

It's impossible to have actually gone through that and not emerge with at least a few great stories; after all, like the close-by Studio 54, Chippendales was one of those places that started as a kitschy New York club* but eventually became a national phenomenon, in this case a literal franchise that eventually inspired merchandise, a touring company and more. And that's why Master of Ceremonies doesn't necessarily deserve a low score, because it's a naturally fascinating story that will at least entertain on a basic level no matter what the circumstances; it is in fact filled with the kinds of juicy details you'd expect from such a memoir, all those nights of wasted housewives offering a hundred dollars to snort coke off a stripper's member, all those kinds of stories you pick up a book like this to read in the first place. But it's a fact that there are serious problems with this book too, not the least of which is the quality of the writing itself; much of it, frankly, is less a coherent narrative story and more a series of unrelated exclamations and bon mots, what I think is Sterry's attempt at Oscar-Wildean wit but more often than not is simply difficult to follow. Then add the fact that he writes all dialogue phonetically, to match whatever accent that particular character might have (actual line from the book -- "Y'll never work in dis bizness wid a big hoipee on ya lip"), and you can see why it's hard sometimes merely to figure out what's being said.

This alone is sure to drive many heavy readers a little crazy; now add that when all is said and done, Sterry ultimately doesn't have much to actually conclude about it all, not too many truly unique observations, his memoir more like a written description of a typical episode of "E! True Hollywood Story" than what you'd expect from someone who was actually in the center of the maelstrom at the time. Plus, I have to admit my frustration with Sterry blithely skipping right over what one quickly realizes is the most fascinating part of this whole story; that this literal paean to female heterosexuality was in reality this bizarre '70s '80s big-city mishmash of straight, gay and everything in between, not just out people and closeted people but those who were confused over their orientation in the first place, in a world where flaming queens were being paid big bucks to be the objects of lust for a group of straight women over the course of a night. The few times Sterry even touches on these subjects all tend to be the most conceptually interesting moments of the entire book -- the moments where this sweaty drug-fueled meat-market environment comes crashing against the personalities of the delicate little club boys simply trying to make rent, of what it might or might not say about a gay man's identity if he spends every evening dancing naked in a warehouse and letting drunk straight women paw at him all night. So to gloss over such aspects as dismissively as Sterry does here is disappointing to say the least, a willful ignoring of what seems to me to be one of the most unique aspects he as an insider can bring to it all, the thing he can add to the conversation that no long-after cable-television documentary can.

I don't want to tell everyone to skip this book, nor do I want to recommend it to everyone; it is instead a title for those addicted to celebrity tabloids and trash talk shows, those who don't mind a merely mediocre project as long as it's dishing up engaging true details about a world of money and drugs they'll never be a part of. That's not a strong recommendation, I know, but neither do I consider this a strong book, which I guess is why God invented sevens in the first place.

Out of 10: 7.3

*Or, well, technically Chippendales actually started as a revue in southern California; it could be argued, though, that it was the NYC version that eventually turned it into the national phenomenon it became.

Read even more about Master of Ceremonies: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:24 PM, January 26, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |