“he likes not knowing until the last minute where he’ll be sitting, sizing up the room like James Bond entering a casino”
Stripper Lessons, a cleverly constructed look at male loneliness from author John O’Brien, is a portrait of an unattached law clerk who works in a dead-end job for a large law firm, drives a beat up Vega, and lives in a small apartment in Hollywood. By day, he searches for an important, ever-elusive missing file, but by night, Carroll heads to the seedy strip club, Indiscretions, pays the cover fee and steps inside.
Dark, but not really. In fact when you come in night after night your eyes adjust before the velvet curtain swings almost-closed at your heels, parting into a vertical peephole and making you feel more INside than if six inches of oak had slammed shut tight at your back. It’s when the exit in the rear-EXIT ONLY-NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES-is pushed open and the security lights of the parking lot flood the room like sunshine, washing out the red and blue spotlights that some of the girls are partial to, that you realize, or remember, just how dark it really is.
He knows all the “girls by sight if not by name,” knows their dance routines (3 in a row), can predict the DJ script, knows the “average stay for a dancer” (two months) and fantasizes about a private table dance. Unable to connect with women, he buys a VHS tape, “The Shy Man’s Guide to Meeting Women,” –a tape that’s largely useless and, if anything, reinforces his inability to talk to women.
Carroll’s worklife is dominated by the thought of nights spent at Indiscretions. When he leaves the club, he feels “separation anxiety,” but then there’s the “anticipatory thrill” for the next night that feels like a promise of what could happen.
Already his mind is at work, confidence building and plans being laid. He need only complete another day of work and he will be right back in the music. Sparkling apple cider, things to be said, and perhaps even the will to say them. Yes, tomorrow could be the night that everything comes together.
Carroll’s world changes with the arrival of Stevie, a new dancer with a messy private life, who wears a revealing camisole and whose pubic area is naked. The other men “look disappointed about something they haven’t yet identified and uncertain about why they should be,” but not Carroll; he’s smitten.
There’s an unspoken competiveness between the male customers who place dollar bills over the rail waiting for the stripper to dance her way over and pick them up. Leaving a five (or larger) brings the hope that the dancer may linger tantalizingly close for an extra second. Melissa, whose routine is predictable, a “one trick pony,” dances with disdain and “narrows her eyes in antipathy at each new bill placed on the rail, looking then to the man behind it as if to catalog the perpetrator.”
A guy in a three-piece suit and no tie puts a twenty on the rail, but she just turns away, eyelids drooping. ThreePieceNoTie looks around and laughs: he wants us all to know that this is exactly the reaction that he wanted; he got what he paid for and then some; he’s nobody’s fool. The guy thinks she loves him, thinks he loves himself.
The novel takes place over a handful of days and nights with Carroll becoming increasingly fixated with Stevie. Carroll is intelligent, and detached enough to realize that a “cool move” made by a dancer, spinning “low on her heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of her backside to the men seated along the rail,” is made not so much for effect but for the dancer to make a “quick tally of the bills hanging on the top of the rails.” But in spite of this clarity of vision, he still projects his feelings onto the dancers and makes it personal when these performances are anything but. He’s excited that he placed TWO dollar bills on the rail, and when the stripper doesn’t acknowledge the double up, he doesn’t admit disappointment and instead decides she doesn’t want to be “unprofessional” and can’t “openly express the gratitude that she must be feeling.”
The novel’s strength lies in its descriptions of Carroll’s deluded thoughts, and the imaginative leap we make that many of the other leering male customers think along the same lines. Here are these young women dancing in front of customers who imagine that because they go to the club frequently and leave dollar bills on the rails, that they have some sort of relationship with the strippers. A customer/business relationship is all too often misconstrued, and how much more fraught with landmines is that relationship when fantasy, nudity and erotic dancing is added to the mix? At one point for example, Carroll decides to ask Stevie about what happened to another dancer. He thinks “such are the benefits of being well-connected.”
Of all the girls dancing, the one that sticks out is Tasha, a girl “who dances with her pussy. Way more than any of the other girls, like in a different league, this being largely a breast place.”
He watches her saunter directly to a corner, put one leg up on the brass rail and part her thighs for the benefit of the two or three men who are favored with a propitious angle. She puts down her open hands, one on each inner thigh, squeezing her own tender flesh, stretching what she can out of the club rules, inspecting herself right along with her audience, a gynecological flair. Satisfied with the state of things, she looks to the men, studies their faces as if to say; Have you seen this? Take a look-see down there. Snap shut the thighs …maybe not that quickly. In any event she is off, a moment spent center stage in an obligatory tit twirl-heel down and the stage is her compass–before strolling off to another corner.
Tasha makes the men feel uncomfortable. Perhaps because she’s so bold and aggressive, removing any playfulness or naughtiness from her routine or perhaps it’s because by stripping away the fantasy of what the men are here to see, she controls the power.
While the book’s title and cover may sound titillating, this is not a book about sex (although there’s a lot to be said about how the power of sexuality)–rather it’s a very poignant look at how a very lonely man tries to connect with females, and how, after two years at the club, the dancers’ routines substitute for a meaningful relationship. Author John O’ Brien makes us feel how Carroll’s real life fades in comparison. At one point, Carroll, whose ultimate fantasy is to bring a girl from the club home, looks around his apartment and the excitement exits his fantasy just like air out of a popped balloon.
I came across Stripper Lessons by accident and took a chance. It’s a remarkable novel for its portrayal of male loneliness, sexuality and fantasy. The ending, unfortunately, IMO, undermined the novel’s main thrust, but still, well worth reading.