When Sexes Collide

By Maureen Dowd

Putnam. 338 pp. $25.95

Pop-Culture-Land, the world of feature journalism, slick magazine pieces, Sunday supplements and 7 p.m. celebrity television shows, is an exotic place, a fevered and seductive state of mind. Maureen Dowd is a pillar of that glamorous but opaque community. At least it may seem opaque to ordinary humans who try to live their lives and stay out of trouble. In ordinary life, moms -- not soccer moms -- get their kids ready for school, and dads -- not NASCAR dads -- tend to go off to work. If they're depressed, they might take a mood elevator, or sometimes they have an affair and get caught, or not. When we work, it's often at a job, not at climbing up the corporate ladder. When we wear shoes, they often don't carry a status-bearing adjective. When we marry, often the men are older, maybe richer, but not always. And sometimes women marry men because they like them, not for their power or money. Some women steer clear of plastic surgery, and when we use a restaurant restroom, we rarely meet Monica Lewinsky. No wonder we pine for a world we can only read about or watch from our living rooms. Pop-Culture-Land seems like a lot of fun.

Because that's where people get dressed up and watch fashion shows and stand in front of curtains to get their pictures taken later, and where promiscuous but jumpy women take two Ambiens before having sex, and dark deals are made with the Devil. (Hillary agreed to put up with her husband's infidelities, Dowd suggests, if he would cede her extra power. Some land!) It's a place where Maureen Dowd herself entered a hotel lobby in Saudi Arabia -- where every woman is expected to wear black in public, all the time -- decked out in "a long pink silk skirt with fringe on the bottom. I felt that I was an American, and a guest of the government, and should not have to dress to repress like Saudi women and off-duty American servicewomen stationed in the desert kingdom." Can you imagine the hell that broke loose that night? Not since Susan Hayward, that '40s bombshell, have we seen such a spitfire!

Dowd is the only female op-ed columnist at the New York Times. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle. She has covered a raft of presidential and vice presidential campaigns, sat in on innumerable important meetings on important matters -- at one such gathering, Judith Miller pushed her out of the New York Times seat. She's had coffee, again in Saudi Arabia, with Christiane Amanpour when that redoubtable journalist told an Arab waiter who suggested that they might want to move over to the ladies' side of the restaurant to "bugger off and bring us our coffee." Dowd's a piece of work, by her own proud admission: "When I need to work up my nerve to write a tough column, I try to conjure up an image of Emma Peel in a black leather cat suit, giving kung fu kicks to any diabolical mastermind who merits it." And this book, with its controversial title and smolderingly sexy cover, would seem to be gearing up to take on the Big Boys: "Are Men Necessary?" is not exactly a friendly question.

But Dowd is a columnist now, not a reporter. She's developed the knack for taking stuff we've known for years in the ordinary world, snapping it back and forth like saltwater taffy and turning it into something smooth and hot. Men, for instance, she tells us breathlessly, like to hook up with women who are younger and dumber than they are. (Also, men are narcissists. Should we alert the media? But of course she is the media.) Women like to find and catch men who are older, richer and more powerful than they are. The older women get, and the richer and smarter, the less likely they are to "find" a man at all. (All this information is culled from pop culture studies and quotes from experts and remarks from innocent passersby: "Men like hunting and we shouldn't deprive them of their chance to do their hunting and mating rituals," opines 26-year-old Julie Bosman, who works at the Times; she continues, "As my mom says, men don't like to be chased.")

With the same intellectual rigor, Dowd, 53, takes up the subject of dating: Should a man have to pay for dinner? Yes. "Jurassic feminists shudder at the retro implication of a quid profiterole," she writes, but she's not one of them. They must be out there somewhere in Pop-Culture-Land, Jurassic feminists grinding their teeth and lashing about with their tails, and lipo-sucked folks who don't cringe at a phrase like "quid profiterole." I just never met any. But I think a sentence like that tells a lot about Maureen Dowd, the paper she works for and even the city she lives in.

Dowd has written some astonishingly insulting and vulgar things about both the Clinton and Bush administrations, but who, when the chips are down, can or would take her seriously? She can be amusing, she's very smart, but she's ultimately immune because she never hesitates to play the silly card: It's just me, making a scene in a Saudi Arabian hotel lobby, doing my lampshade impression! I'm just a girlie-girl, remember. A vixen spitfire, chatting on about quid profiterole. And besides, I make you laugh.

When you go to New York and see a musical, isn't there always a big number at the end of Act 2 where the dancers line up and stretch their arms straight out above their heads and wiggle their fingers? And isn't this always presented as edgy and brand-new material? In fact, Manhattan is deeply old-fashioned. The city pines for a girl who's smart but acts like a ditz, who repeats what our grandmothers told us and passes it off as something she just thought of; a girl who writes that she wanted to emulate Katharine Hepburn but owes much of her style and tone to Lucille Ball. Maureen Dowd is funny and smart, but most of what she tells us here -- sieved through dozens of other articles and sound bites and sitcoms from Pop-Culture-Land -- turns out to be, literally and figuratively, yesterday's news.

Sunday in Book World

* Harry Truman survives an assassination attempt.

* Anne Rice sinks her teeth into Jesus.

* Jane Goodall says you are what you eat.

* Frank McCourt says you teach what you are.

* Pornography ruins men, relationships, the country.