The Book of Vice

Arguably, if you need a book on how to do vice, you’re unlikely to actually commit many vices. That’s the message I took from Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to do Them), a hilarious book that examines vice from an anthropologist’s perspective rather than a participant’s. Even if you do learn how to commit vices, you’re unlikely to do so on the scale discussed here. Sure, Sagal discusses swinging and even goes to a swingers’ event, but he doesn’t actually, uh, swing, in the chapter he goes on a long, quasi-scholarly tangent on the mating habits of bees:

When the male honeybee ejaculates, he explodes. And before female readers start weighing the pros and cons of this, consider that via this explosion, the honeybee separates himself from his genitalia, which he leaves lodged in the female, preventing any further canoodling. The bee goes to his death in his moment of ecstasy, his last thought probably being the honeybee equivalent of: “ha!”

Fortunately, Sagal is such an excellent, funny writer that I’m more than willing to read his tangents on animal mating, which is a persistent theme. His descriptions are better than those in most literary fiction I read and are rivaled by Woody Allen: “Somewhere out by the Glendale Freeway, miles away from the louche hillsides and corrugated flats of Porn Valley, there is a particular eruption of cinder block, with asphalt and chain-link moat, generic even by L.A. standards.” L.A. is perhaps the most generic city in existence, unique only for how generic it is, which makes this particular shack especially notable. In the section on strippers, Sagal says that “They [the strippers] exposed their buttocks and the Mysteries Within to us in a manner that reminded me, a little dizzyingly, of mating displays I had seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” But don’t think he looks down on strippers or any of the others he studies, as the overarching theme isn’t really vice—it’s power, a sort of laymen’s Foucault that deals not with political structures and networks but interpersonal struggles and cash. Arguably interpersonal struggles and cash can be incorporated into Foucault’s discourse, but that’s wandering too far afield: Sagal is interested in how strippers extract cash from their clients, porn stars extract it from their clients, restauranteurs from their diners, and the like. Even the host of the swingers’ party makes a little cash, though not too much. The same is true of consumption in the sense of conspicuous, as Sagal rides in his in-laws’ private jet, notes yachts, and discusses the hierarchy of high-end automobiles and what they signify. Once you have enough money, it becomes gauche to drive a Maybach and cool to drive a beater, as Warren Buffet apparently does. The only people who find Ferraris cool are apparently software millionaires, aspiring software millionaires, and mobile home residents. Many if not most cars, like much consumer detritus, are meant to signify power relationships, with the beater cars driven by gazillionaires an indication that the gazillionaire has risen so high that he—and he is almost always a he—has risen so high as to not need to display his ostentatious wealth, which in turn becomes ostentatious.

Studying the meaning of power and vice can become exhausting in trying to decipher its meaning. This is why it’s good that Sagal has a deft touch with euphemism, as the above quotes show, and with humor in its many forms. On the wealthy, he notes that many purchases aren’t designed just to show money, but that the rich “want a little token, just a package of wild rice, to indicate that they’re liked.” He sets the tone in the introduction:

Two hundred and thirty-odd years ago, a progressive thinker of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment envisioned a utopia, and in America we have come near to perfecting it on earth. Wherever the Marquis de Sade is now, he must be proud. I imagine him wandering through the Power Exchange [a San Francisco sex club inhabited mostly by lonely men whose pornographic dreams don’t come true], eyeing the copious bowls of condoms and lube, the porn playing in continuous loops on monitors and the walls, and saying, “Truly, this is the paradise that I envisioned. . . . But why does everybody look so confused?”

Many people do look and act confused in this book, including at times the purveyors of various kinds of vice. Josh is the son of the owner of the Power Exchange, and Sagal observes that “Josh, in his father’s eyes, could do nothing right, which might explain why he found it so hard, as I observed him that evening, to do anything right.” I doubt I’d do any better than Josh at hosting an exhibitionists’ show in a sex club. Vice, as with most things done right, is hard work. It’s also elusive, and Sagal says that “The Power Exchange was, for the most part, nine thousand square feet of tease.” It’s a bit like a BYOB party, except you’re not brining beer. The same is true of the swingers’ event where Sagal doesn’t swing, and it’s also a lot of work to set up.

By the end of the book, you can’t help thinking that Sagal is happier being happily married than he would be a glutton, a gazillionaire, a swinger, a porn star, or a gambler. It’s easier being faithfully married, for one thing, and it’s perhaps easier to keep that ironic eye on the rest of the world, and especially the small corner of it engaged in serious vice. Despite the way formerly big vices are becoming commonplace—”Nowadays, as with almost every other aspect of what used to be the Divine Right of Kings and Kings alone, anybody can partake in these pleasures: aristocracy, like roof tar, seeps downward”—Sagal implies that you’re probably better off not indulging in them, or indulging when you’re young and frisky and then settling down, as at least one porn star does. Furthermore, those engaged in vice are working, and working in jobs that quickly become just jobs; as one man says of strippers, “‘They’re like psychiatrists […] except they get paid by the minute, and in crumpled dollar bills.'” More hilarity from Segal’s choice of quote, and underneath that more commentary on the relative power of the vice seeker and vice provider. They’re both work. I can’t help but thinking that The Book of Vice is more likely to anesthetize one’s desire for vice, rather than enflame it.

Perhaps that’s Segal’s biggest point. But on the way it’s a very fun ride, and probably much more fun than paying more than $50 to be a single male at the Power Exchange.

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