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Confessions of a playboy

Steve Almond is the author of "The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories" and "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America."

“THE Game” is being marketed as a nonfiction account of the two years that author Neil Strauss spent hanging out with a gang of self-proclaimed pickup artists. But as the reader quickly discerns, it is actually meta-fiction, a blisteringly funny portrait of the modern American male as frail misogynist in retreat from his latent homosexuality.

The book arrives quite unexpectedly. Heretofore Strauss has shown himself to be little more than a transcriber of celebrity prose, coauthor of “The Dirt” (with Motley Crue) and “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” (with Jenna Jameson), among other thoughtful works. This time out, Strauss tells his own story -- or, rather, he creates a hilariously pompous version of himself as the narrator. “I want to write literature, not give advice to horny adolescents,” the fictional Strauss laments early. “I am a deep man -- I reread James Joyce’s Ulysses every three years for fun.”

Alas, Strauss suffers from a common problem: He is unable to pick up women, perhaps because of his excessive depth.

Strauss takes speech lessons, gets Lasik eye surgery, starts surfing and buys a new wardrobe that includes pink cowboy hats and shirts emblazoned with their own LCD displays. “I looked at every aspect of my physical behavior. Were my arms swinging when I walked? Did they bow out a little, as if trying to get around massive pectorals? Did I walk with a confident swagger? Could I ... [s]wing my legs out further, as if trying to get around massive genitalia?”

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Most important, Strauss apprentices himself to a series of pickup artists (“PUAs”), who teach him the pseudoscience of seduction. The comic potential here is obvious, and Strauss goes for broke. His first and most influential mentor is Mystery, a depressive Canadian who dreams of becoming a professional magician. "[W]ell-chosen props are a great way to focus a girl’s attention on something else so she doesn’t resist overt sexual moves,” he advises. “Say, ‘Look at the puppet show over there,’ while you play with her [breasts]. If she hesitates ... simply point to the puppets and laugh, ‘Look at the puppets. Look, they are funny puppets.’ Then play with the [breasts] again.”

Another PUA, Ross Jeffries, demonstrates the powers of “neuro-linguistic programming,” a form of hypnosis favored by those for whom the pharmacopeia of date rape has proved too dear: “After a few more minutes of Ross’s flirtatious hypnospeak, the waitress’s eyes began to glaze over. Ross seized the opportunity to toy with her mercilessly. He raised his hands like an elevator from his stomach to his face every few seconds, smiling as it made her blush.” Jeffries then suggests she transfer her feelings of attraction to a packet of sugar (a process he calls “condiment anchoring”) “so that you can carry them around with you all day.”

“The Game” is chock-full of such fabulous invented jargon. PUAs memorize “routines,” then try to “isolate the target” and overcome LMR (“last-minute resistance”) so they can bed numerous women and write about it for other men online. The goal is to become a legend, like Steve P., who “for anywhere from several hundred to a thousand dollars ... trained women to have orgasms from a single vocal command.”

The nebbishy Strauss adopts the nom de guerre “Style” and soon transforms himself into a world-class stud who reduces women to sexual ectoplasm in minutes. We know this because Style chronicles his conquests in punishing detail. At one point he informs us rather gallantly that he is actually having sex with one of his harem as he types the words we are reading. No woman is safe. We’re told that Britney Spears gives Style her phone number and that Courtney Love all but begs him to bed her. Perhaps inevitably, an acolyte uses a Style routine to pick up Paris Hilton. “Despite my aversion to being a guru,” Strauss writes, “I had clearly become one. When I talked to a woman, the room went silent. The guys leaned in close to hear what I was saying, pulling out notebooks to write my words down and commit them to memory.”

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If all this begins to seem a little pathetic, a little too much like a sustained locker-room fantasy, rest assured that the author is up to something far deeper. Just beneath the surface of his playboy facade he entertains a terrifying suspicion: He is gay.

“I was in the game to have more women in my life, not men,” he writes. “And though the community was all about women, it was also completely devoid of them.” This realization haunts him: “The point was women; the result was men.” His feminine targets are reduced to holes that need filling, but the real hole, he eventually discovers, is inside him. The book’s central romance, then, is between Style and his teacher, Mystery, who was driven into the seduction game by a similar fear. Style attends to his unstable friend as a lover would and is plagued by explicit sexual fantasies about him, memorably including the sharing of a sexual partner and the consequent commingling of their sperm. (“I hope you don’t mind,” says Mystery. “ ‘I don’t mind,’ I said. And I didn’t.”)

It’s all quite obvious to the reader. But what marks “The Game” as a work of true genius is the willed naivete of its narrator. Even as he issues his blatant confessions and hops into the Jacuzzi with Mystery, Style is convinced that he’s a hyper-heterosexual. Unable to recognize his desperate bragging as compensatory, he remains poignantly lost.

This is a particularly brave book, given the climate of homophobia that now grips our nation. “The Game” is nothing less than a searing expose of sexual bigotry and masculine self-hatred, delivered from the inside. (One suspects, rather deliciously, that certain readers may actually fall for the publisher’s clever “nonfiction” gambit!)

Some credit, of course, belongs to that very publisher. Judith Regan, ever since Rupert Murdoch gave her an imprint, has been regarded in some quarters as a literary ambulance chaser. One can only hope that her gamble will pay off and that this subversive satire garners the attention it so richly deserves. *


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