BIG-BUCKS AUTHOR GAY TALESE spent nine years researching (briefly he operated a massage parlor) and writing Thy Neighbor's Wife, an imperfect inventory of contemporary sexual activities and hang-ups. His emphasis is on sex as a business.
The publicity has been extraordinary -- "landmark book," and so forth -- but the product is not. Thy Neighbor's Wife is constructed mostly from the sort of intellectual plywood you find in most neighborhood bars: part voyeurism, part amateur psychoanalysis, part six-pack philosophy.
Arthur Bremer failed to achieve orgasm in a New York massage parlor, and a month later he shot George Wallace in a Maryland parking lot. (Get it, huh?) A woman who finally became convinced that her genitalia were as good-looking as the next woman's gained so much confidence that "she demanded a raise -- and got it." The only essential difference between nude art and nude porno is that one is created for the wealthy and the other for the common man.
There you have three accurate paraphrases of Talese. I stick them in here at the begining so you'll know you can unbuckle your seat belts. Thy Neighbor's Wife never takes off. At best it is little more than expansion of what any semiconscious newspaper reader already knows: that the establishment is a pretty clumsy monitor of morality, that there is a great deal of money to be made by those persons clever and daring enough to circumvent the establishment's strictures, and that society's sex taboos are falling like an aged lothario's ardor. <(CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1)
Although Talese is practical enough to admit that money is the chief motivation of the sex industry, he also seems to be arguing that virtually all purveyors of erotica are created by childhood oppression.
Hugh Hefner, it seems, founded Playboy in reaction to his parents, those "relics of the Victorian era." This appraisal becomes a bit strained, however, when we learn a few pages later that mama contributed $1,000 -- one of the biggest donations Hefner got -- to publishing the first issue and daddy later became the magazine's accountant.
And if childhood restraints can be credited with making Hefner rich, apparently they must also be blamed for creating the conceited, weird simpleton who emerges from Talese's typewriter -- a fellow who spends most of his time in bed with Playmates while a ceiling TV camera records the action for posterity ("In his more visionary moments . . . Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream"), hopping out of bed only long enough to revive himself with Pepsi-Cola and a game of Monopoly.
Talese's case histories of publishers would make Miss Lonelyhearts turn purple. He describes Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler, as "an eighth-grade dropout, a dirt-poor Kentucky sharecropper's son." Screw's Alvin Goldstein, child of a stuttering mother and a father who kept hardcore pics in the bureau drawer, was, according to Talese, a masochistic drifter until he found his place in smut. The psyche of William Hamling, once California's most successful porn publisher, was shaped, the books says, by the "sex-denouncing nuns and priests" of his Chicago childhood. Marvin Miller, another rich pornographer, grew up on welfare and was first arrested at the age of 6.
Stanley Fleishman, a lawyer who specialized in defending obscenity cases, was hit by polio as a child and was transported around the Lower East Side of New York City for years by his immigrant Russian-Jewish mother "in an oversized baby carriage."
Next to Hefner, the featured player on Talese's psychoanalyst's couch is John Williamson, the brooding offspring of a crippled, part-time bootlegger. Williamson founded Sandstone Retreat, a 15-acre Los Angeles hideaway. Some of his early followers in a group-marriage experiment were people who had grown up in households where sex was equated with, or practiced as, various kinds of abuse and perversion. Later Sandstone expanded into a sex club open to anyone who could pay the dues or had enough prestige to give the joint some class. Here we meet such flickering luminaries as columnist Max Lerner and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. We are told that Ellsberg, before becoming a regular participant at Sandstone, had responded to newspaper advertisements for sex orgies.
A visitor to Sandstone's basement, Talese says, would have seen in the semidarkness a churning sea of bodies and would have heard "sighs, cries of ecstasy . . . the slap and suction of copulating flesh." Makes your hair stand on end, doesn't it? No?
Unfortunately for Talese, he brings such titillations to the marketplace too late to shock. Descriptions of sex clubs have been finding their way into print, even in family newspapers, for years. See "Plato's Retreat" in The Washington Post, February 23, 1978, written with the kind of dash that Talese cannot even imitate.
Indeed, the most irritating aspect of Thy Neighbor's Wife, aside from the bas psychiatry, is the bad writing. Talese smothers you in cliches and soap-opera language -- "the recreational sex was mainly an excuse for them to be together and to explore within their embrace the deeper intimacy that they both sensed was there." Sometimes his lushness is hilarious, as when he calls a transcontinental trollop "a beautiful vagrant bird in tireless flight."
For a book that pretends to be a broad survey, there are some strange omissions. Where's Bob Guccione of Penthouse, who pushed the pink much farther into mass circulation than Hefner ever dared to do? And why is there not one mention of the whorehouse industry? Has it disappeared?
Still, there are pluses. Talese does an excellent job reviewing the court battles between bluenoses and freethinkers over the past century or so. And he does come up with some fine folk trivia. Did you know the infamous morals enforcer Anthony Comstock threw a publisher in jail for printing "How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind?"?
It's just too bad that Talese has to be so heavyhanded. In trying to get a good grip on sex he squeezes it to death. In trying to make kinky sex seem ordinary he only succeeds in making ordinary sex seem kinky. Thy Neighbor's Wife offers sex without elegance or mystery and -- most dread defect of all -- without even a touch of humor. Can this really be American sex? Say it ain't so, Henry Miller.