E. Jean Carroll, who has the dubious honor of being Playboy's first female contributing editor, believes that "women act strange because of the way men see them," and sets out to prove it with a stacked deck of strange women.
As a survivor of the 1950s sorority scene, I read her chapter on life in today's sorority houses with the eyes of a rabbit mesmerized by oncoming headlights. Nothing has changed, except that "Grody!" has replaced "Icky!" as the preferred hysterical shriek. Sisterhood, Grecian or feminist, is still notable for its absence unless we count the stampede that ensues when members follow the rules for greeting rush party guests: "1. Open front door of sorority house, 2. start screaming, 3. run outside." Joy or sorrow are still greeted with identical cries of "I don't believe it!" Blackballing sessions are still called "hash" and still last until dawn; dippy songs about necking, petting and menstruation are still sung to the tune of "Camptown Races," and thanks to Carroll, they are once again running through my head.
On to the UCLA cheerleader competition where we meet a finalist whose dress-for-success wardrobe includes 100 T-shirts and sweatbands for every occasion. A former cheerleader herself, the author muses on "which is more painful: being a famous person and remembering being a collegiate nerd, or remembering being a famous collegian and waking up a nerd."
She captures to perfection the humorless intensity that afflicts sex counselors, but her own humor falls flat when she turns to "fluffers" -- girls hired by porn movie directors to hang around the set and keep the actors aroused between takes. She is, she says, "cheered by the idea of women at last getting a grip on the film industry." Jokes like this should be told only in lodge halls.
Much of the book is simply unfunny the way teen-agers are unfunny. The author too often forgets that humorists must maintain an above-the-battle stance, and settles for ventriloquism instead of real observation. Banal sentences are the result: "Mary Martha is going steady with Al. Sally and I used to go out with Al. It is my opinion that Al kisses like a dork."
She also fudges on her book's length, using a welter of white space (six blank lines on the typewriter to indicate dropped paragraphs), as well as those one-sentence paragraphs favored by exhausted pornographers desperate to get to the bottom of the page. One of her ostensibly full pages contains only 102 words, and on another the word "goose" is repeated 46 times.
It gets better when she takes the urbanophilic Fran Lebowitz on a camping trip. Contemplating the back flap of the tent, the mordant author of "Metropolitan Life" asks, "Is this in case of a raid?" Felled by a violent headache brought on by fresh air, Fran struggles with the child-safe cap on a bottle of aspirin while making suitable misanthropic remarks, jumps when someone asks "Where's the ax?" and inquires "Turn in what?" when an early-bird camper tells her it's time to turn in.
Carroll is at her best in her account of a coast-to-coast publicity tour by romance writers on the "Love Train." Among them is Roxanne Alden, who writes in bed under a canopy she crocheted herself; astrologer-novelist Ann Lyddane, who delivers solemn advice on how to find "the soft underbelly of a man"; and Janet Dailey, who feels guilty for having written only 78 books since 1976.
At one of the whistle stops, Carroll interviews a devoted romance reader who says she reads for escape. "Escape from what?" asks Carroll. "I dunno," the reader replies. Discussing the rumor that romance publishers will soon demand books with more spirituality, the authors conclude that this means making the heroines say "Oh, my God" more often.
The Love Train pulls into Penn Station and the authors fall into the waiting arms of the Queen of Love herself, Barbara Cartland, magnificently described by Carroll as: " . . . a gigantic woman, tall, big-boned, big-breasted, broad-shouldered, short-necked, square-jawed . . . the firmers, the concealers, the mummy lip fix, the surgi-creams, the baby possum eyelashes."
Off they all go to the Romance Writers Convention where waits the "Loveswept Man" -- a welder hired by the publishers to roam around the hotel looking romantic, but the place is crawling with so many fledgling women writers that most of the time he's mistaken for an agent.
If Paris is worth a mass, this chapter is worth a book, even a careless and uneven book. All in all, Carroll emerges as an energetic spot-checker of the battered family psyche in our era. If she would take more time and exercise more literary control, she could remove the spots.