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Lacking Zip

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, April 19, 2005

THE SEX DOCTORS IN THE BASEMENT

True Stories From a Semi-Celebrity Childhood

By Molly Jong-Fast

Villard. 192 pp. $21.95

You can't judge a book by its cover, or its title or its premise. At first glance (which is all it took to persuade me to review it), "The Sex Doctors in the Basement" is appealing on all three counts: attractive cover, amusing and provocative title, a story about life in an eccentric and mildly famous family. But then you start reading, and reality sets in. "The Sex Doctors in the Basement" might have been amusing in someone else's hands -- perhaps, indeed, the hands of its author's mother, Erica Jong -- but in the hands of Molly Jong-Fast it is whiny, self-absorbed and a whole lot more grating than fingernails scraped back and forth against a blackboard.

Jong-Fast, who is in her mid-twenties, published a novel called "Normal Girl" when she was 21, which, as Dr. Johnson said in another context, "is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Not having read "Normal Girl" -- and having, now, absolutely no desire to read it -- I cannot speak to the question of its merits, but the reviews suggest that Jong-Fast was heavily under the influence of Bret Easton Ellis in writing this tale of a privileged Manhattan girl who wallows in drugs and booze before finally going off to rehab and steering herself onto the straight and narrow.

In writing "The Sex Doctors in the Basement," Jong-Fast appears to have fallen under slightly different influences: the two Davids, Eggers and Sedaris. She's trying to be a stand-up comic with a golden heart, the combination that each of the Davids has parlayed into great success, albeit more commercial than literary. Both writers have large followings, and it isn't hard to see why. But Jong-Fast is like the warm-up act on amateur night at the comedy club: trying so hard it hurts, though apparently it hurts the reader more than it hurts her. She's the Energizer Bunny of would-be comedians, keeping on keeping on even though her prose rarely rises above the level of slumber-party chatter:

"The funeral was a flop. Attendance was low. The service seemed unending. Various family members got into car accidents before and after (Hi, Timmy!). My friend Tanner came with me as my 'date.' He was best friends with the preppy murderer Robert Chambers in high school. He likes when I tell people that (Hi, Tanner!)."

That little paragraph is in almost every respect typical of "The Sex Doctors in the Basement." Though gestures are made at bringing family and friends into the tale, everything revolves around the author, who clearly finds herself endlessly interesting and amusing. A vulgar touch ("the preppy murderer") establishes the level of the playing field, as does the look-at-me arm-waving: "Hi, Timmy!" "Hi, Tanner!" The underlying assumption is obvious: Since Jong-Fast is endlessly interesting and amusing to herself, all she has to do is rattle on -- the Manhattan first cousin to a Valley Girl -- and we'll all merrily laugh along with her.

As the kids used to say a few TV seasons back: Not. To be sure, senses of humor being what they are, there may well be readers who will find hilarity where I find nothing but tedium, though most of them probably are to be found in the list of names Jong-Fast drops in her acknowledgments. Perhaps, too, a reviewer who is plenty old enough to be Jong-Fast's grandfather is just too old to get it, but as it happens, I have enough young people in my life to have a rather strong sense of how sharp and funny they can be these days, and Jong-Fast can't hold a candle to the ones I know.

For the record, Jong-Fast's grandfather is, or was (he died three years ago, age 88), Howard Fast, the author of best-selling historical novels and a left-wing apparatchik, whose son Jonathan was the third of Erica Jong's four husbands and hung around in her life long enough to father her only child, Molly. Between the grandfather and the mother, many, many books have been produced over the years, and around each a certain aura, if not outright legend, has evolved: Fast as the eccentric communist sympathizer who refused to tell tales or name names during the McCarthy years, Jong as the author of "Fear of Flying" (1973), the novel that brought women's sexual liberation into the open and added to the language a two-word phrase of which only one word ("zipless") can be printed in a family newspaper.

However one may feel about these writers' books, they are interesting in and of themselves, and the prospect of learning a bit more about their authors makes "The Sex Doctors in the Basement" seem inviting. But because Jong-Fast is so single-mindedly focused on herself, only bits and pieces about them emerge. Fast, by his granddaughter's ostensibly loving but actually mean-spirited account, is a dotty old coot who rattles on about yesterday's battles and frets that the New York Times doesn't love him as much as he thinks it should. Jong, who has done nothing to discourage her public image as a sexy babe, comes off as a doting, overly protective mother whose little girl, basically, can do no wrong.

Nothing wrong with that: A bit of the sentimental in "the Queen of Erotica" is a nice, and endearing, touch. But grandfather and mother mostly are pushed to the background by the daughter, who seems incapable of positioning herself anywhere except center stage. Like most of today's memoirists, she's far too young to have had anything approximating a real life (no, "drugs and alcohol" and rehab don't count), but that doesn't stop her from nattering on about herself for nearly 200 pages. She likes to have it both ways: She confesses her shortcomings -- indeed intentionally exaggerates them -- and then goes right on demonstrating that she's fully in possession of them. She is, she says, "very, very, very, very superficial," as well as "very vain, self-centered, self-loathing, self-obsessed, self-effacing and shallow," all of which clearly is true on the evidence she herself presents. "I wanted my life to be about me," she writes. "I wanted everything to be about me."

At least in the pages of "The Sex Doctors in the Basement" she gets what she wants. Yes, there's a chapter about the sex doctors who set themselves up for a while in the basement of her mother's Manhattan townhouse, and another about the entourage that every celebrity needs -- "a bodyguard, a chef, two nannies, a trainer, a guru and a drug dealer" -- and another about the time she and her mother spent in Venice, "a place where no one pays taxes, no one ever scoops the poop, and the idea of not smoking in a restaurant is laughable."

As those brief quotations suggest, there may be a mildly gifted humorist and/or social observer latent in Jong-Fast, but "latent" is the only word for it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company