When exactly did the publishing industry start its mullah-of-the-month club?
It seems that as fast as Joyce Carol Oates can churn out a new novel, American readers are treated to another tome from right-wing scolds like Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Robert Bork and the reigning witch, er, queen of the New York Times bestseller list: Annie Longlegs Coulter. If you're an accomplished conservative intellectual -- whatever that means -- proclaiming that our nation is speeding south on Interstate Hades is a juicy racket: book deals, op-eds, 20-grand-a-pop speaking engagements -- it sure beats working at Sizzler.
According to our scribbling scolds, America's demise is the result of the twin scourges of multiculturalism and secular humanism perpetrated by the usual lineup of moral degenerates: feminists, gays and Alec Baldwin. So who will defend these sinners, the gluttons and greedy-guts, the humble sloth of the earth?
Enter syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, a gay man who, you may recall, licked his way into the national spotlight after infiltrating Gary Bauer's 2000 presidential primary campaign. Incensed by the candidate's extreme homophobia, he decided to spread his flu by dispersing his saliva around the campaign office. As a result, he was prosecuted for voter fraud and equally lauded as a folk hero and psychopath.
Savage, editor of Seattle's alternative newsweekly The Stranger, calls Skipping Toward Gomorrah his "Bork-Bennett-bitch slap." Armed with his publisher's money, he sets out to commit all seven deadly sins. He gambles in Dubuque (greed); fires away with gun lovers in Texas (anger); attends a fat acceptance convention in San Francisco (gluttony); drops 10 pounds at a $10,000-a-week spa-cum-boot camp in Los Angeles (envy), attends gay pride in the same city (pride), and hires a few whores in the Big Apple (lust).
With each chapter devoted to a sin and its practitioners, Skipping ebbs and flows accordingly: Savage's gambling experience is a snooze compared with his infiltration of a fat-acceptance convention -- where he is initially mistaken by rapacious female attendees as an FA or "fat admirer."
Equally fascinating is his trip to New York in the wake of Sept. 11 where, in the name of patriotic consumerism, he hires a $1,500 call girl, just to talk. When she mentions that her boyfriend is in the same business -- catering to masochistic gay voyeurs -- he manages to find and hire him the very next night. Such are the responsibilities of an intrepid journalist.
Savage's readers won't be surprised to find that he is as sharp a cultural observer as he is a corrosive wit. And he seems most provocative when shooting in all directions simultaneously, including at those on the wishy-washy left: "Terrified of being the pro-pot party of the pro-adultery party or the pro-sodomy party, the Democrats opt for virtue-lite politics and send junior varsity scolds like Sen. Joe Lieberman out to lecture Hollywood."
Savage is an impressive arbiter of serious ideas. His main sin in Skipping, however, is redundancy. His libertarian defense of those engaging in victimless vice is undoubtedly important, but it is so thoroughly established in his delightful introduction that it quickly becomes a dead horse.
While Savage makes a case that a sinning people can remain virtuous in their pursuits of victimless pleasure, he fails to probe the national propensity for being admonished.
No one is forced to listen to Bill O'Reilly or read Buchanan, Bork or Coulter, and yet their books sell by the truckload. Like it or not, a tolerance for self-righteousness has long been part of the national character. Fortunately, it's something from which Mr. Savage remains quite immune.
-- John Dicker