Reviewed by Kim Nicolini
Thursday, April 27 2000, 12:45 PM
Ayn Imperato's Dirty Money, a series of vignettes about life as a goth/punk sometimes sex worker, sometimes movie extra, sometimes musician and artist, twenty-something girl from Philly living in San Francisco, could be blown off as MTV's Real World in print. But somehow, even though it has all the ingredients of MTVism, it's better. Why? For one thing, the writing is pretty darn good. It's humorous, poetic, and real all at the same time. Just when you think it's on the verge of being annoying and trite, it delivers a punch of social realism or a wrench to the heart that makes you care about "Ayn" and the other characters that populate the book more than you ever would about the mannequins posing as real people on MTV. It's funny, but not too funny. Heartfelt, but not dripping with sentiment. Socially conscious, but not dogmatic.
What makes the book such a good read is that it blends a wide range of emotions and moods. You'll laugh along with Ayn as she heads to Vallejo, CA to cover herself in mud and play a Zombie from Hell as a movie extra. But before it can become too funny, you start feeling the cold that soaks into Ayn's body as she spends hour upon hour upon hour in the cold of night covered with wet muck. You sense the divisions of class as Robin Williams strolls out in his fur overcoat to exchange friendly words with the mud-clad frozen extras.
Sure MTV, tries to pull off this kind of Twenty-Something-Realism, but ultimately, as real as the people supposedly are on MTV, they always seem to be cut-outs. Maybe just by virtue of the fact that they're on MTV in the first place, they just seem a little too perfect and a little too privileged regardless of their so-called struggles. After all, they were selected as the few out of millions who wanted to be in the "Real World."
What really got to me in Dirty Moneywas the girl thing too. It is very much a book about being female and the shit we do for money, do for self-esteem, and do just because we think we have too. Whether it's giving some anonymous punk boy a blow-job under the boardwalk just because he asks for it and you're feeling devastated about seeing the boy you really want with another girl, or whether it's doing phone sex for every possible type of pervert under the sun, Dirty Money lets you see the quiet acceptance of unconsensual sex as the norm for most girls. But it doesn't go overboard either. There's enough humor and realism in the stories that you get the best of all worlds: you read some great stories, you enjoy being a voyeur peering at the dirt of the sex industry and other unseemly sex acts. At the same time you actually feel for Ayn without feeling sorry for her.
Then again, the girl/sex work thing is also just a work thing. Ayn reminds us that all work is prostitution as we see her whore herself out in the goth-voodoo-kitsch shop, the movie business and the phone-sex trade. It's all the same. You do what you have to, not what you want to, in order to survive.
Being a San Francisco native who has lived a "salad bar" of lives in that city myself, I also enjoyed the very realistic cast of characters which populate Ayn's book: the queens with feather boas and tiaras on New Years Eve; her goth "Soul Mate" and feisty waitress friend; who do speed and talk all night; Mundo, "The Burrito of Death," and the carny whose career is operating the Tilt-O-Whirl.
The book has its share of hipsters, that's for sure: punks, goths, artists, and musicians. But it has enough scenes outside of "The Scene" to keep it from getting tedious and annoying. You travel with Ayn to the Jersey boardwalk as well as Tehachapi in California's Central Valley. Ayn doesn't cater to hipness as the only way of being. She sees everyone through very democratic eyes and all of the people are very REAL.
Being a new mom with a short attention span, one last thing I have to say in praise of the book is that it's quick. I am a great fan of the 90-minute film. I'd definitely rather see 90 minutes of excellent celluloid than two and a half hours of Hollywood bullshit. Dirty Money is definitely in the excellent 90-minute school of book writing.
Kudos to Jennifer Joseph and Manic D Press for putting out such an accurate and well-written glimpse of the "Real World" of Ayn Imperato. I hope to read more from Ayn in the future.
Dirty Money is available from Manic D Press