Working Stiff by Grant Stoddard

Working Stiff explains how Grant Stoddard, the most sex-repelling college student in England, moved to the United States, won a contest to have sex with a sex columnist, and became a columnist himself for, launching “I Did It for Science”, in which he transformed himself into a sort of sexual test monkey for the amusement of readers. Though Stoddard draws on some of the “I Did It for Science” material, Working Stiff is really not about sex: It’s about what’s possible in the United States, where, Stoddard believes, an open mind and a willingness to try absolutely anything can lead to fame and, if not glory, at least lots of sex. The book’s also great fun.

Considering that, for much of the time that is the focus of Working Stiff, it was Stoddard’s job to have, not just sex, but eye-opening sex, the book is actually quite impersonal. There are some bits that doubtless gave his mother pause when first she read them — perhaps the scene in which he and another man urinate on a third, masturbating man, or perhaps the one in which he masturbates in front of a group of Leather Camp attendees while rimming a woman he’s just met, or even the one in which a friend sodomizes him with a strap-on made of a cast of Stoddard’s own penis — but sex isn’t really what the book is about. In the last installment of “I Did It For Science,” Stoddard wrote that “I’ve tried to convey what it feels like for a regular Joe to participate in some pretty freaky shit,” and that sense of disconnect is his true topic. Caught between “regular” and “freaky,” he has a keen eye for the comic potential of catachresis and aberrant details.

It also might seem strange that, considering how much “freaky shit” he’s done, Stoddard spends almost no time reflecting on its meaning or value. The closest he comes to such reflection is in the publicity interview bundled with the book. In response to the question, “Are you scarred for life by your experiences? Is there any hope for you to have a monogamous sex life?”, he notes that he “was more scarred by the period in which I was a sexual persona non grata. A period of time I like [to] refer to as the 1990s. I think that was the most damaging” (8-9). (We might call this interviewer’s query the Chasing Amy question: Will women react like Ben Affleck in that movie, and insist desperately on catching up to Stoddard’s imagined deviance, or will they accept that his sexual past might not predict much about his sexual future?) The book reflects the standard sex-positive line that pretty much any act that doesn’t directly harm another (or to which any other participant freely consents) is a good thing, and that pleasure is its own justification. Of course it’s practically impossible to imagine the book, or the column, existing without at least provisionally holding that view of sexuality.

Lurking beneath the details of sploshing and the etiquette of pants-optional bridge is a straightforward memoir about a small-town boy moving to the big city. This is the true heart of Stoddard’s story, and it is the source of most of Working Stiff‘s best comedy. The sketch of Stoddard’s first college apartment, a room in the home of the phlegmy, “scrotal”-faced, EastEnders-addicted Mrs. Montague is itself worth the cover price — and it is only the first in a series of unorthodox living arrangements that serve as the platform for Stoddard’s assault on America. He lives for quite some time in an apartment in Chinatown where he is not allowed to be seen entering or leaving, and he ends the book staying in a ranch that may or may not be haunted and where it is certainly not safe to leave after dark. (Mountain lions.) Stoddard’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to get out of the way of his enthusiasm: that is, he is capable of hymning a night spent temporarily homeless in such a way that it’s neither pointlessly corny nor condescending. He’s not a nuanced prose stylist, but this enthusiasm–what he calls in another context “can-do spirit” — makes up for his not being Henry James.

Some minor complaints: The book could have used another bout with a copyeditor — in the “Hate Mail” chapter, for example, his girlfriend gets two different pseudonyms. It’s clear that they’re the same person, though, because both times Stoddard insists he “was in the death throes of” the relationship. It’s probably telling that this slip happens in this chapter, devoted to Stoddard’s experience at Leather Camp, because it’s the one that makes him most uncomfortable, largely because he has to deceive his fellow campers. There are also a certain number of clichés, such as the cocaine-fueled magazine office, that just don’t move things along. The last persistent complaint is that, while I’m sure it’s never comfortable being fired, Stoddard does not present this material well. In fact, on the pages where he outlines his conflict with Rufus Griscom, it’s hard not to take Griscom’s side. These are insignificant, however, compared with the real pleasure that Working Stiff elicits: A weirdly calming hilarity about sex, and a sweet enthusiasm for life in the United States, particularly New York.