Imagine your worst fear suddenly coming true, looming in front of you or slithering across your bare feet in the dark. What do you do, scream or run? Dan Greenburg takes a deep breath and plunges right into the depths of his terrors. But he's neither a hairy-chested adventurer nor a New Age phobia therapist.
"I'm a coward," he says. "There is nothing in my life, no matter how benign or banal, whose contemplation cannot, if I'm given sufficient time to brood about it, fill me with dread." That includes cocktail parties and getting out of bed in the morning.
Greenburg deliberately confronts his physical and psychic fears to defuse them and to write about them for Playboy, Life, New York and Esquire (where most of these 10 tales first appeared between 1969 and 1977). Greenburg also knows, as do readers of his books and articles, that he's at his funniest when he's fearful. Which is what he is much of the time in chapters titled "Firefighters," "Orgies," "Black Magic" and "The Morgue."
In "Voodoo" Greenburg dances the night away in a frenzied Haitian ceremony with possessed women who, to his horror, bite the heads off pigeons, walk through fire and juggle hot coals. Such a place for a nice Jewish boy from Chicago. He also visits the lair of a voodoo witch doctor, the real thing, he knows, because "no fake witch doctor would dare to have things like a miniature white rubber skull with a black Dynel wig sitting atop an empty Johnny Walker Red Label bottle on his desk."
In "Black Magic" Greenburg visits Loch Ness, where he ignores ominous warnings about tampering with the unknown. The attraction is too powerful when he hears creepy stories about luminous shapes glowing in local graveyards and "bogles" -- black soccer-sized balls that pop out in certain houses and bounce around the living rooms.
"What if there really is something to all this mystical gobbledygook?" he wonders, setting off on a cockamamie quest across Scotland, searching for the incense, magical swords, cups, daggers and "black magical flashing tablets" that will, he hopes, evoke the demon Sitri. Greenburg, ever the serious student of the occult, hopes Sitri will return the favor and "show us naked ladies."
That would create additional problems, of course, because Greenburg fears that "at an orgy there was the distinct possibility that I might be seriously laughed at in chorus."Ever the intrepid adventurer, in "Orgies" Greenburg participates in a saturnalia (investigative reporting can be hell), amazed that he's "at least intermittently potent" and that "God is not hurling bolts of lightning to incinerate me."
Greenburg is at his wittiest in this chapter and the two others dealing with sex. In "Sex Ads" he responds to 80 personal advertisements in Swinger's World and The New York Review of Books, discovering that most of his correspondents want "to sell me Polaroids, panties, or S/M software." He does manage to have a tryst with a woman claiming to be a masochist, but she turns out to be researching her own book, and Greenburg, too nice a guy to be a sadist, even in his leather jeans and motorcycle jacket, comes off like the Marquis de Shlemiel.
"Sandstone" finds him at the famous Los Angeles sex . . . ah, workshop being fondled by two dozen naked men and women in a swimming pool and enjoying unlimited couplings with numerous women ("the kid-in-the-candy-store syndrome, or what I call The Heartbreak of Satyriasis"). Greenburg's account of this is refreshingly nonmacho, combining self-deprecating humor, wide-eyed incredulity and some valuable insights into our culture's sexual hangups.
Yet as funny and well written as the three articles on sex are, they're curiously dated, almost poignant. Written at the height of the sexual revolution (who won?), "before herpes and AIDS were invented" and when Greenburg was divorced, they have a giddy quality. The chapter "est," which includes what may be the best interview of that movement's founder, Werner Erhard, is also a period piece, particularly since est is now kaput. (But having a copy will help when your kids ask, "What did you do during the Me Decade?")
The humor is appropriately subdued in "Firefighters" and "The Morgue." The first is a gritty account of Greenburg's four-month association with the South Bronx's Engine Co. 82, probably the world's busiest firehouse. The second (an excerpt from Greenburg's "Love Kills") is a tour of New York's charnel house that teaches us and the author more about "floaters" and "roastie-toasties" than we care to know.
Deft, intelligent and often hilarious, "True Adventures" proves that, in Dan Greenburg's case, when the going gets tough, the tough get funny.