In 2097, if students are still taking a course called ”The Literature of Fact,” now taught by John McPhee at Princeton, JEN-X: Jenny McCarthy’s Open Book should be required reading. Nothing else could offer such a pure snapshot of a working-class young woman in celebrity-obsessed, turn-of-the-century America.
Okay, that was probably not the blurb envisioned by the canny marketers — I mean publishers — over at Regan Books when they packaged — I mean crafted — what they no doubt hoped would be a female version of Howard Stern’s mega-selling Private Parts. Complete with the same kind of loud magazine and MTV-style graphics and cute baby pictures, JEN-X, cowritten by freelance writer Neal Karlen, even chronicles McCarthy’s Stern-like obsession with … farting.
But get this: JEN-X actually cuts through the cheese it seemed destined to be and emerges as a little gem of a memoir — far more honest and believable in its crude way than the fussily executed, self-conscious recollections of highbrow books like Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Freed from the constraints of anything but the desire to sell this book, Regan and Co. have accidentally produced a witty, inspirational story that is both a classic piece of pop-culture ephemera and a grand record of it.
At its heart, JEN-X works because McCarthy, the tough, determined daughter of a Chicago steelworker, tells the truth about being a woman — about being ambitious, lonely, jealous of other women; about being used by men and using men. ”Those men whose unfunny jokes I laughed at and who I flattered with my attention were all fools,” writes McCarthy about her stint as Playboy’s Playmate of the Year. ” … This was the game I had to play for a while to get in the club.” And her frankness about matters involving personal hygiene — which I won’t even begin to describe here — are at times gross and disturbing, rare for a woman, and reminiscent of some of Sylvia Plath’s jarring ruminations on similar subjects.
Smartly self-deprecating, again in the fine Stern tradition, the book is an instant antidote to every airbrushed profile of a Cosmopolitan cover girl. Merrily describing herself as a ”friendless geek,” McCarthy tells us right up front that she hates her breast implants. She says she plans to take them out and wishes she had had enough self-esteem not to have had the operation in the first place. (”Girls, don’t do it,” she warns.) She doesn’t need to exercise and eat right to stay thin — she’s such a nervous wreck from the stress of working in Hollywood that she has diarrhea all the time. She didn’t pose for Playboy because it was a way to demonstrate her art; rather, ”It was the only way, maybe my only chance to get to Hollywood and in front of a camera.”
That spot before the camera is McCarthy’s holy grail, her ticket out from behind the counter of a deli in Chicago. McCarthy doesn’t pretend it’s about craft; it’s about the ”ridiculous daydreams I’d always had about being famous in a cool way,” during a childhood in which her role models were Wonder Woman and Donny and Marie. Her most revealing tales are her memories of growing up poor with three sisters on Chicago’s gritty South Side as a competitive, ”lost and confused” tomboy who locked herself in the bathroom and talked to the shower curtain to escape the ”chaos” of her crowded home. Most entertaining are her stories about her stint as a barmaid and the violent brawls she had with other women.
She laments what she describes as her devoutly Catholic mother’s near breakdown after hearing about her Playboy pictorial but coolly explains it as a risk she had to take. ”It had to be a stepping stone,” says McCarthy, who now vows never to pose nude again. ”You rolls the dice, you takes your chances.”
McCarthy’s adventures in Hollywood — breakfasting with Hugh Hefner’s spoiled sons at the Playboy mansion, fending off a lecherous Steven Seagal, feuding with Pamela Lee, mistakenly wearing her Valentino dress backward at the Oscars — are the kind of hilarious stories most careerist starlets would rather die than disclose.
Maybe you won’t believe the grade this book is getting. As McCarthy herself says: Whatever. Bite me. A
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