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Isherwood's a good journalist, but he's not a biographer
on 22 July 1997
Isherwood begins with the famous words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, "All excellence has a right to be recorded", and while this is solid enough justification for the biography, his execution of the task is far from excellent. This is not for lack of trying, it appears that I. has employed all of his talent and training as a journalist to their fullest degree. He has found those who knew Joey when he was still Nick from South Philly and has collected revealing statements about Stefano's own take on his life from rare interviews, usually from studio-backed skin mags and old issues of AVN. He fleshed these out with reminiscences from the auteurs who gave him his start (notably ChiChi LaRue, the corpulent granddiva of gay porn, and bisexual transsexual Karen Dior, who starred with Stefano in his first adult film), the stars whom Stefano worked with, old roommates and friends. These form the heart of I.'s writing, but his account lacks any sort of soul.
If there were a phrase which would best describe I.'s book it would be artificially compassionate. Rather than letting Joey's truly lamentable decline into depression and heavy substance abuse create genuine sympathy with the reader, I. never gets over the journalist's need to offer an interpretation, no matter how superficial or obvious. The title of the book comes from two staples of Stefano's existence, the peanut butter sandwiches made on fluffy white bread he ordered from the gay-owned grocery store near his apartment in W. Hollywood and the popular designer drug he became increasingly dependent upon towards the end of his short life. But instead of making us more sorry for the blue-collar kid who had a rough life, wound up with HIV dying in a vicious industry, it makes Stefano sound like the gay Elvis. This isn't compassionate, it's cloying.
In order to feel sorry for Stefano, we have to suffer along with him (indeed, this is the root meaning of compassion), but I. refuses us this, instead we are led along a duller and duller path of Joey's in-and-out drug rehabilitation sessions, cut with surprisingly lackluster accounts of his in-and-out film sessions. In all honesty, I purchased this book expecting to be slightly titillated (Joey appears suggestively unclothed on the cover, and a reviewer quoted on the cover suggested "This book may titillate you. . ."), but I. focuses almost maniacally on Stefano's career path to self-destruction than on his career. Thus I.'s ostensible purpose in this biographical expose is apparently to point out how the gay porn industry (pardon the pun) thrusts these boys to stardom and just as quickly passes them over for the next big. . .well, thing. But rather than viewing Stefano's own self-destructive habits as at least as contributing to the studios' gradual distancing themselves from him, I. seems to pin the blame squarely on the filmmakers for employing him less and less. This is true enough, but the evidence points to the fact that little Nick, Jr. was adept enough at hustling for the cash to support his habits well before he came to W. Hollywood.
Not to say that Stefano's tale is not heart-breaking and torturous, from all accounts he was a genuinely sweet guy who needed love and approval more than anything, and unfortunately wound up in a profession where these were at best short-lived. But, again, the journalist in I. wins out. Rather than letting the story speak for itself and letting us draw our own conclusions, he fiats rationales for Joey's behavior. His abusive father died when he was 15, and therefore his need for approval was driven by some universal unconscious need of gay men to please their fathers. Thanks, Freud, but sometimes a porn career is just a porn career. Not all of us have bad relationships with our fathers, and those of us who do live rather well-adjusted lives are frankly tired of the cliché of a universal gay male experience, one suspiciously patterned on back issues of Psychology Today (or is it old Pottery Barn catalogs?). Another amusing identifier of I.'s narrow West Coast worldview is the final sentence of the blurb on the rear cover, which tags Joey as coming from "the country's heartland." Yes, Philadelphia, breadbasket of the nation. I. also draws significance from the fact that Joey was born on New Year's Day, 1968, which he misidentifies as the "summer of love" (in fact it was 1967). Thus Joey becomes the porn superstar who shaped a generation, offering us a cultural alternative to those Reaganites who "were tuning up BMWs, turning on CNN, and dropping into the best restaurants." This certainly creates an interesting notion of what I. understands by the word "generation", but it is more telling of his penchant to let his well-developed gay male ironic sensibility (never let me be guilty of avoiding a generality when it suits my purpose!) determine his conclusions rather than let the facts speak for themselves.
At its best, I.'s book paints a stark portrait of a bleak life, one bereft of much joy other than the occasional acid tab or peanut butter sandwich. There are moments where the sheer pain of Stefano's existence comes through and we see the young man, without much to his name other than his attractiveness (indeed he was all too aware his greatest asset wasn't going to last forever), and who was facing the prospect of the end of his career and his likely death from AIDS with little to show for it other than a stack of videotapes and hollow memories. But I. peppers this truly compelling story with unwarranted dispensations of talk-show psychobabble and indictments of the industry which did this to Joey. But, in the final analysis, the ultimate responsibility for the life and death of Joey Stefano rests squarely on his own shoulders. If the sad career of Joey Stefano, as told by I. means anything, it is not only that it's lonely at the top, but it's also pretty lonely on the bottom, too.