Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling , by Rick Whitaker. Four Walls Eight Windows, 179 pages, $18.
Assume nothing about Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling. The title is titillating, and the rest is clever and for the most part well written. But it’s also suspiciously seamless where one expects chaos, and diffuse where one anticipates structure. Rick Whitaker has written a memoir so calculated to shock that it reads like pulp fiction.
The facts of Mr. Whitaker’s early life are ordinary, almost banal: The son of a welder and a railroad worker, he dropped out of music school in Cincinnati at 20 and came to New York in 1988. He was hired as an assistant to Gordon Lish, a Knopf editor at the time. After graduating from Hunter College with a degree in philosophy, Mr. Whitaker became managing editor for an academic journal. Meanwhile, he wrote a novel and reviewed books.
Things then went horribly wrong. He failed to get the novel published. His boyfriend broke up with him. He began drinking heavily and using cocaine. And he started having sex with men for money.
Which led at last to a book deal.
Hard hearts would say it’s no surprise that this young writer is making his debut not as a novelist, but as a diarist chronicling his career as a drug-addicted prostitute. Though Mr. Whitaker enriches the story of his two-year belly crawl by artfully dropping Freud, Nietzsche and Whitman into the mix, the main ingredient, inescapably, is a lurid account of the drug-fueled services he performed for johns, many of them rich and famous (anyone for a round of name-that-john?). Hustling is the whole point.
Mr. Whitaker’s pose is a cool one: If you enjoy sex with strangers, as he claims he does, why not get paid for it? Disappointed with trying to build a writing career, he became a hedonist for hire. He convinced himself that turning tricks would be a “useful” source of material. He seems to think of himself as a modern-day Jean Genet. Attracted to the illicit life style, Mr. Whitaker eschewed a day job for obvious reasons: Hooking gave him time to write and lots of money. “I would not be at all ashamed of paying for good sex,” he writes in a typically lofty tone, “just as a good concert is worth the price of admission, or a good meal is justifiably expensive.”
Does Mr. Whitaker want his readers to believe that he would have been willing to pay the ultimate price? Though he doesn’t completely avoid the topic, he spends very little time describing (yawn) safe sex. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he’s H.I.V. negative.
Mr. Whitaker proves an entertaining and dutiful reporter, from his days strolling as a freelancer out of a now-defunct East Village bar called Rounds to his later matriculation to the escort agencies Wow and Big Guns. He says he had a talent for the business, and it was easy “tax-free” money (this last is perhaps the book’s only truly offensive disclosure).
He also has an ear for gossip, and he peppers his account of his adventures with kiss-and-almost-tell details about more than a few of his customers. He insists on the fact that it takes a man of some wealth to afford his services: The rate was $350 an hour. Among the lawyers and businessmen he entertained were a once-famous Broadway producer, a voyeuristic restaurateur and a cryptically tagged “W.L.” who had a penchant for cocaine. One notable “client” was a man who worked in publishing and later for a successful fashion designer. If this designer is, say, Ralph Lauren, then more than a few in the magazine business could accurately guess the gentleman’s identity. Or there’s the television personality, often the butt of David Letterman jokes, who greets Mr. Whitaker at the door with bottled water and acts in an overly mothering way during their carnal cavorting. Could it be that the Wittgenstein-spouting wannabe writer was servicing Richard Simmons?
Somebody told Mr. Whitaker that if he fully communicated his feelings about hustling, people would relate; the book would sell well. Dutifully heeding this advice, Mr. Whitaker stuffs the memoir with personal revelations. Unfortunately, the tangle of intimacies is hard to push through: He pitied and admired the johns. The work was difficult and easy. He had his feelings hurt; he was emotionally numb. The sex itself was “fascinating” yet “humiliating” and “inelegant.” Mr. Whitaker covers all the bases and in the end reveals very little. The diary entries he’s interspersed throughout the book are clipped and impersonal. At one point he notes: “I seem to have no boyfriend prospects at the moment, and I’m living the life of a whore. Listening to Offenbach overtures and trying to write.” There you have it: a man charmingly at ease with both ars and arses.
The book’s darkest revelation comes when Mr. Whitaker confesses an inner desire to seek revenge against his father, who rejected him for being gay. But even this turns into smutty merriment: Mr. Whitaker shares his sex fantasies, dreams of fellating his dear old dad. When Mr. Whitaker recalls a long, sloppy ambiguous kiss his father once laid on him, one can’t help thinking of smooch-diarist Kathryn Harrison and the wet one her father gave her and the icky book it spawned. The second time around, news like this looks a little smudged.
Mr. Whitaker is a tough character to root for. He is awfully well connected for someone who ended up hustling for a living. He studied poetry with Harold Bloom and spent summers abroad working in a music library. Now he works as the assistant to the general director of the New York City Opera. Socialite Brooke Hayward has contributed a glowing plug for the back of the book, and she’s signed on with several others to host his book party. It makes you wonder: Wasn’t there some other avenue? Was hustling the only way he could get by?
Assuming the Position is sort of like Andy Warhol Diaries without the index–and without the deadpan and without the names. This could have been a profoundly moving story; this could have been more than titillating tattle. Mr. Whitaker could have mined his experience for earnest revelation, but instead he merely assumes the position.