The Self-Destruction Handbook: 8 Simple Steps to an Unhealthier You by Adam Wasson and Jessica Stamen. Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004.
This little book cleverly satirizes America’s obsessions with sex, health and various vices. Filled with bizarro-world table turning, plain absurdity, and acute observations of familiar social phenomena that no one likes to talk about, it would make a great gift for anyone who can take a joke.
Of course, we all know people who cannot take a joke. And indeed it may be unfair to ask a recovering alcoholic (or the child of one) to laugh when, in “12 Steps to a Drinking ‘Problem,'” the authors advise staging inappropriate outbursts: “After becoming inebriated at the wedding reception of a close friend or relative, break down in tears and proclaim loudly that no one will ever really love you.” But one person’s sad reminder is another’s knowing nod and a third’s chuckle. And though there are occasional descents into poor taste, this book is refreshingly un-P.C.
The “Why Smoking Is Cool” chapter provides a perfect example of the authors’ knack for table turning. “Even more difficult than learning to smoke is maintaining your habit… Every day, thousands of people give in to social pressure and give up the sexiness and individuality symbolized by their cigarettes. You don’t want to be a quitter, do you?” The poor taste is evident when they advise smokers to “not be fooled by the kindly ‘Joe Camel’ – he is in reality ‘Youssef bin Camel,’ and he’s sneaky.” But the few such lapses are overwhelmed by the book’s good dirty fun.
The authors are excellent on sex stereotypes and the pop psychology that tries to explain us to ourselves using dichotomies and symbols. According to Wasson and Stamen, a woman asking to bum a smoke is really saying, “I am demonstrating my willingness to put something of yours into my mouth, so you can go ahead and bank on that BJ,” while a male fag-begger is really saying “I am poor and quite possibly homeless. Want to have sex?” Of course we know that a person bumming a cigarette is mostly just a nicotine addict desperate for a fix, but a little part of us senses that the book may be nonetheless hitting on (no pun intended) a particle of truth. And the chapters on dating and infidelity zero right in on some of the ugly things that happen in our petty brains when we play the relationship game.
The chapter on drugs is good for a different reason: it has a legitimate (if easy) target, the “war on drugs.” But after a lot of absurdity and table turning, the section ends with a tale of a blocked attempt (no doubt by one of the authors) to access an informational website, which elicits a tonally jarring outburst against the “blatant violation of the right to free speech” and “fascist scare tactics [of the] current administration’s march toward modern McCarthyism.” It reminded me of the joke I heard in my first week at college: “Q: How many Harvard girls does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: It’s ‘Harvard women,’ and that’s not funny.” For an uncomfortable moment, the authors lose their sense of humor. Fortunately for us, it’s not something they do often.