If you knew the name Toni Bentley before her self-combustion in The Surrender (ReganBooks, $24.95), it was probably for her extraordinarily agile contributions to the tiny world of ballet writing: Her first book was Winter Season (1982), produced at the tender age of 21 (early for a writer, not for a dancer). Exquisitely written -- as fleet and muscular as a thoroughbred -- the book was a splendid manifestation of grace and grit. She went on to ghostwrite Suzanne Farrell's virtuosic memoir, Hanging on to the Air, in which Bentley (a Balanchine product herself) captured the heady business of falling in love with one's own Pygmalion. Bentley wrote two more books after that, but she seemed to undergo the typical arc of the aging dancer: The books were less ambitious, signaling a diminishing agility -- these were character parts, no bravura performances. There was Costumes by Karinska, about Balanchine's costume designer, and then Sisters of Salome, about the seductions of dancing the part of the legendary femme fatale. But the principal roles seemed to elude her.
Now, in her fifth decade, Bentley has turned the camera on herself in what can only be called a spectacular flameout. The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir is her account of her addiction to anal sex and her burning jones for an inamorato she identifies only as A-Man. The book, none of which can be adequately described in a family newspaper, is mind-boggling in its rawness. It is dirty, foul-mouthed, gawdy as redlight porn -- an apotheosis of female self-loathing. And yet the prose yearns, with the perverse grace of a long-past-it dancer, for readers to see it as art. More than one book critic -- mostly men -- have referred to it as "a masterpiece."
Bentley calls her erotic quest "Finding Paradise," and she even summons God into the equation: "I am an atheist, by inheritance. I came to know God experientially, from being [expletived] in the [expletive]." You get the idea. Aside from the shock factor, which is considerable, there is a creeping ridiculousness here: Throughout the book she alludes to "the backstory" of her love story, the "behind-sight" of her perspective. When she confronts A-Man's Other Woman, she writes, "I guess she didn't know the whole of it. Or the half of it. Or the back half of it." By the time you finish this paean to her stern, you're red-faced as a schoolgirl: Not from the naughtiness, mind you. From the horselaughs. This once elegant writer is hoofing her heart out. And peeking in you are made to feel -- there's no other way to say it -- as silly as an ass.
-- Marie Arana