Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent
by David Sterry
A review by Georgie Lewis
Chicken is a book for voyeurs, and I must admit I was lured to Chicken for the same reason I found myself engrossed by Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight and adored the film Boogie Nights. The vulnerable boy-man propelled into the underworld of drugs or pornography by self-loathing and the scars of dysfunctional middle American domesticity. Looking for love, or a sense of family, in all the wrong places, and finally coming to some sort of wisdom at the close.
Yet Chicken is a different sort of book than Permanent Midnight, and Sterry's tale of male prostitution in LA in the 1970's has none of the sentimental affection that blossomed now and again in Boogie Nights. Permanent Midnight has an immensely strong propulsion, probably fueled by massive doses of caffeine now that Stahl has kicked the myriad uppers and downers that ruled his life for so many years. It screams and kicks, begs and apologizes, and weeps with regret. The grime of the life of an addict sticks with you after the last page. Boogie Nights, on the other hand, portrayed the LA porn scene as a sort of alternative community, one where Dirk Diggler could find love and attention and a modicum of fame. Sure, the life burns him out and uses him up, but there seemed to be moments of grace and happiness.
David Henry Sterry has worn many hats: actor, marriage counselor, screenwriter, comedian, and when he was 17, male prostitute — a "chicken" — for one year. In retelling his experiences of that year, interspersed with flashbacks to his youth aimed at figuring out just how he got there, Sterry is unsparingly honest. Drugs don't take much prominence and you get the feeling that a lot of these memories were experienced stone cold sober, giving the text an odd tone, a black and white confession of bizarre activities. Unlike Stahl's book, Chicken never really takes the reader through the wringer. We watch, with Sterry, at a distance. The year feels a little like an aberration, an accident that was far from pre-ordained. In fact, Sterry stumbled into prostitution as a way to make money after he arrived at college and found that the accommodations he expected were non-existent. Sterry paints the perfect picture of a somewhat introverted, seventeen-year-old boy, with newly divorced and emotionally distant parents, ruefully doing what he can to make some money rather than beg for help. Trying to hide his job from a "normal" girlfriend and still get by at school, Sterry lives two half lives, never feeling quite comfortable in either. Chicken is a compelling read, some fairly sensational material, bite-sized chapters and spare prose (mostly) speed the narrative, and Sterry’s bewilderment and emotional revelations are at times very moving. Yet Sterry finally doesn't allow us the ability to empathize, to form real identification with him, because you get the feeling that today's Sterry is being a voyeur himself, peering back to yesterday's Sterry, a boy he only distantly remembers.