Books

Bookmarks: The Book of Vices

When preachers preach about the deadly sins (gluttony and whatnot), it's difficult for them to do so without getting into at least some description. The impact of a sermon fulminating about the depraved sins of the flesh would lose some of its oomph if the preacher in question -- eyes bulging and lips flecked with righteous spittle, of course -- left out the juicy details. The flock must understand what exactly is so wrong about whoring and debauching, and where and how these luscious sins are being enacted, if they're to properly avoid them.

We who consider ourselves part of (or at least neighbors to) the intelligentsia tend not to go in for such déclassé spectacles, but we have our own ways of finding out about what happens in the dark crevices of society. There's well-meaning documentaries, of course, not to mention HBO Undercover, and, least we forget, National Public Radio. Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me! takes a page -- well, whole chapters, really -- from Dan Savage's blueprint for Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America for his guide to the nation's seamy under(and over)belly: The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them).

Pretty much just like in Savage's book, Sagal takes readers on a humorous tour through all manner of activities traditionally considered sinful, from lust (swinging) to gluttony (insanely high-end dining). Like Savage, Sagal is a quick wit, and he has no illusions about his own ability to fit into the various subcultures he comes across (at a swingers party: "In a lifetime in which I've been to all kinds of sexual marketplaces -- bars, parties -- this was the first time that I was going to get ignored because I wouldn't put out"). But whereas Savage is an alt-media journalist and stiff-spined defender of personal freedoms and liberties who brings an acid touch to his writing, Sagal doesn't really have that much of an agenda here, he's just the public radio smartass who wants to have a good time and make a book out of it.

Sagal is certainly an intrepid enough guide to his (not so) lowly endeavors, whether it's the soulless "fun" of strip clubs or that time he won $157 playing blackjack in one of Vegas' lesser casinos. Being a radio host who needs to keep his own amidst all those college types listening to NPR, he's quick with the quips, and even tosses off some borderline insightful cultural commentary along the way (as well as some helpful and well-learned advice: when going to strip clubs, "bring along some female Ph.D.'s in sociology"). But the pleasures here are relatively thin and fleeting, made all the more so by a self-satisfied tone that veers too often into smugness. It's one thing for Sagal to have the commendable honesty to point out that many of our society's commonly accepted vices are, in fact, not that fun at all (like the $750 dinner at Chicago's food-fantasy headquarters, Alinea), and quite another for him to have traveled to the dark side and come back with little to report.

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