Offhand I can't think of a better way to spend Saturday night than staying home and reading this book on how Americans spend Saturday night. For one thing, it saves you having to engage in any of the grueling forms of fun that & Susan Orlean so amusingly describes. For another, it provides you with a series of mild, vicarious thrills, the type of thrill that four out of five sedentary book critics recommend. In other words, Saturday Night may relieve you of the gnawing compulsion to go out and stand in line to get into someplace crowded and noisy on Saturday night.
For there is something compulsory about Saturday night, as there used to be about Sunday morning. Orlean aptly calls it ''a sort of secular Sabbath.'' Pagan Sabbath would be even more apt the weekly Bacchanal, a night of mysterious ritual, ornate costume, and abandon. In Elkhart, Ind., it is the time for driving slowly up and down Main Street in a ceremony known as cruising. In Jessup, Md., it tis the time for an 82-year-old woman named Cecelia Kostler to array herself in ''a silver-lamé bell-bottom pantsuit or a chartreuse satin cape-and-skirt set'' and let go at Blob's Polka Park. Even in narrower confines a Staten Island prison, a Bowery missioo, and a Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami Beach Saturday night asserts itself as an interval of oddities and exceptions. Even the officers serving as valets and doormen for our nuclear missiles in an underground launch site near Cheyenne grow wistful as Saturday night rolls around.
On Saturday night, Orlean tells us, there are fewer long-distance calls, more murders, fewer suicides, more glasses of liquor sold, fewer airline flights, and more diets broken than on any other night of the week. Fortunately, she neglects to tell us exactly how many. She has heroically resisted any impulse to be systematic or statistical. And it's just as well that she avoided the lurid no orgies, brothels, crack dens, gang wars. She concentrates on the rich variety and comic potential of American ordinariness. Even the murder she throws in a middle-aged lovers' quarrel is ordinary and slightly slapstick.
Best of all, she has a keen ear for funny dialogue, which calls to mind Damon Runyon, Evelyn Waugh, and screwball comedy. Convict: ''I was just doing my usual hanging out, and things were going on, and eventually, there was a disagreement. . . .Money I'd say. . . .And consequently a murder occurred.'' Chris and Cristina, a languid, dandified 17-year-old Los Angeles boy and his girlfriend, who take suitcases on their dates so they can change into one style-drenched outfit after another: ''It's rather boring to go to just one place. . . .Of course, we're not decadent-bored. We're looking-for-culture bored,'' she says. ''Come, come now. This should all be amusing, Cristina. We are the embracers of style, n'est-ce pas? By the way, did you know that someone opened a club just for transvestites?'' Park Avenue hostess: ''I absolutely hate to go out on a Saturday night. I think that's when most people go out, though, isn't it?'' Blond, gum-chewing, wisecracking waitress to dieting diner at the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., the country's busiest restaurant, where 7,000 meals are served every Saturday night: ''Okay, let me get this straight. You're going to have a salad with no dressing and some recently boiled water? Would just plain boiled water be okay? And when you say recent, like exactly how recent do you mean?''
The hordes of patrons at the Hilltop actually wait in order to wait. They are eventually handed numbers allowing them to mill in a narrow passageway for up to 90 minutes until they are herded to their tables. Meanwhile, a few miles away, Wellesley students endure a lurching, fume-choked bus ride in order to spend a few sodden hours partying near Harvard and return at 3 a.m. in the same emetic bus. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto fun.