Although my husband is a fan of Peter Sagal, host of NPR's weekly news quiz show, Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me, he won't need to spend much time reading Sagal's The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them). I've already read most of it to him out loud.
Vice is that kind of book full of passages so deliciously funny you keep elbowing the nearest person and saying, "Listen, I just have to read you this bit … ."
Sagal writes in his author's note that the book was inspired in part by unfortunately coiffed sportscaster Marv Albert. Specifically, it was the incident a decade ago when Albert's career took a downturn after his mistress accused him of, among other things, biting her.
Sagal writes, "I felt some sympathy for him. Not for his strange appetites, I can't even bring myself to bite ice cream, let alone a forty-two-year-old woman to whom I am not married, but for what I imagined was going on in his head."
Sagal theorizes that Albert spent all his time around enormously rich, popular professional athletes who could and did do any insanely self-indulgent thing they wanted.
Sagal writes, "So why not me? said Albert to himself. Why can't I engage in that same kind of polymorphous perversity that seems to be the birthright of the successful?
"Because you're Marv Albert, said the world."
So, on behalf of all the Marv Alberts, Sagal goes in search of self-indulgence and the subtitles of his chapters suggest what happens. He talks to strippers (Sure, They Like You. Really.), researches scam artists (This Chapter Will Change Your Life and Make You Millions!) and visits the set of a live sex show on cable TV where viewers can call in and make requests (You Can Look, But You Can't Admit It.).
Sagal, fortunately, is much wittier than Albert, and much more self-aware. The latter quality is the source of much of the book's humor. Sagal, the mild-mannered Midwestern dad and Harvard-educated NPR host, interviews lap dancers and porn superstars and a married couple in a swingers' club outraged by another man who, after having sex many times with the wife, had the temerity to fall in love.
But Sagal isn't just there to watch; that would make this The Book of Voyeurs. He's a philosopher of bad behavior, raising his lamp to cast light on why people do these naughty things and whether they're really as much fun as we fear (or hope).
On the set of the cable sex show, he observes that "even in their most vocally exuberant, squinched-eye, tensed-neck poses, (performers) Evan and Kelly radiated a contagious professional detachment. They were not engaged in the ancient combat of love; they were merely re-enactors. Whatever was going on here, it wasn't 'sex,' anymore than what Cathy Rigby does on the set of Peter Pan is 'flying.'"
Extramural sex isn't the only vice Sagal explores. He finds a surprisingly direct link between America's Puritan roots and its passion for gambling. His chapter on conspicuous consumption traces a fascinating path from the adaptive value of the peacock's tail to the story of David Brooks, a defense contractor who in 2005 threw his daughter a bat mitzvah that cost US$10 million.
Yes, you read that right. The biggest chunk went for entertainment, which included performances by Tom Petty and members of Aerosmith and the Eagles. Tells you who the party was really about. Is that array of grizzled boomer icons what a 13-year-old girl would choose?
(This particular indulgence was worse than Sagal thought. Last week, just after Vice was published, Brooks was arrested on 21 counts of embezzlement and other crimes; investigators say he charged that party, among others, to his company, which makes body armor for soldiers.)
One of the most hilarious chapters is about a dinner Sagal and his wife have at Alinea, a highly acclaimed Chicago restaurant. Its chef, Grant Achatz, is a practitioner of molecular gastronomy, an elaboration of culinary art cross-bred with chemistry, a rather chilly type of extreme cuisine.
As Sagal writes, a molecular chef "would look at a banana and see something to be frozen, microtomed, processed into foam or liquid, or maybe, through some magic bit of alchemy, turned into a meatball."
The result is both strange and irresistible: "Waiters carefully place in front of us: a square of Lucite, four inches by four inches by half an inch, standing on edge. On top of the square: a sliver of metal, holding what looks like a single yellow die on which the spots were applied by a blind person with a tiny brush. This is, according to the menu: 'corn, with coconut, cayenne, and lime.' It looks no more like corn (or coconut, cayenne, or lime) than a Whopper looks like the Queen of Romania."
But when he eats it, the result "is quite literally indescribable as if somebody poked your brain with an electrode and all of a sudden you started tasting things nobody had invented words for." After a couple of dozen courses and a lot of very fine wine, Sagal writes, "I paid the US$750 bill and licked the glass."