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Relishing a steady diet of sin and vice

After finishing a book, I typically have one of two reactions: "That was good," or "That was not good."

After reading "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them)," there is now at least a third: "How do you get other people to pay you to have this much fun?"

A fast-paced 254-page homage to debauchery, "Vice" is the brainchild of humorist, screenwriter and National Public Radio host Peter Sagal, who set out to traverse the limits of propriety and do -- or occasionally watch other people do -- really nasty stuff.

He covers gluttony, gambling, sex clubs, pornography, excessive consumption and lying, with plenty of wit and an occasional hint of sadness while reporting on the people who take part in these activities and are not writing a book about them.

Early on, he differentiates between sin and vice. The former is something you do whether or not you enjoy it. Vices are things that may or may not be wrong, but you enjoy them.

This is vice: "You knew you shouldn't. But . . . You loved it. And now . . . You feel terrible."

The book employs immersion journalism, which requires the author to do more than just observe and interview. Sagal has boundaries: When he writes about a sex club, he goes with his wife and makes clear to everyone that he is there to look, not touch. But when he goes to a restaurant that is the definition of decadence, he pulls right up to the table and chows down.

Not coincidentally, the chapter called "Eating" -- alternate title, "Sodom's Restaurant" -- is also one of the more entertaining ones.

Here, Sagal and his wife Beth go to dinner at a Chicago restaurant called Alinea, which specializes in something called "molecular gastronomy." MG practitioners take what we standard omnivores think of as food and turn it into something unrecognizable and almost impossibly tastier. (Think the kid chewing gum that is in fact a seven-course meal in "Willy Wonka.")

The diners are brought something they are told is frozen yuba, and the waiter explains to them that it is a byproduct of the manufacture of tofu, "with blood orange around it in a miso emulsion."

This is Sagal's hilarious description of what happened next:

I take a bite. It is -- again -- indescribably delicious. Chewy and salty and sweet. It's -- yubarrific.

"This is the best fried yuba, I've ever had," I said, quite serious.

"Much better than Long John Silver's," said Beth.

Another highlight: the chapter on lying. Sagal once wrote a play about Holocaust deniers and after watching people say that perhaps the most documented event in human history was a hoax, he came up with a simple five-step system to lie about anything. Using his system, he argues, anyone could deny that Massachusetts exists.

By the end of the chapter, you begin to wonder . . .

Reading this book and enjoying the fun Sagal is having, is certainly not a vice. Guilty pleasure? Probably. But still entertaining enough to be worth recommending.

The lasting impression Sagal leaves is that vices are much like the old and no longer true cliche about New York City: fun to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Bruce Andriatch is a News staff editor, columnist and connoisseur of things funny.



The Book of ViceVery Naughty Things (And How to Do Them)By Peter SagalHarperEntertainment272 pages, $24.95

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