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''High relief'' barely describes the 3-D literary invention that is Savage, whose six-year-old column, Savage Love, runs in 16 newspapers in the United States and Canada (including the one you're reading), where it's reportedly seen by 3.5 million people a week. Not long ago the Times called the advice column ''one of the most vital, unpredictable literary forms going,'' an optimistic overstatement unless you consider the genre a last journalistic outpost of strong personal voice. And, as Savage Love (Plume, $12.95),a just-published collection of his columns makes clear, Savage is all tone--the voice of a shady drag queen masquerading as the school nurse. Mouthy, obnoxious, rarely consoling, Dan Savage is at the same time a reliably funny dispenser of practical, funky home truths and a spirited reporter from the not-so-nether reaches of kink.
To a letter writer sharing that chestnut of male anxiety, fear of inadequate penile endowment, Savage sensibly replies: ''Dick isn't everything. So you have a small dick, how big's your forearm? How big's your tongue?'' To the teenage girl who came out as a dyke only to find herself dogging male crotch: ''Listen to your body, listen to your pussy. If you're a dyke, your pussy will let you know.'' To the woman terrified her attraction to gay males signals a hidden ''psychological problem,'' Savage snaps, ''If being attracted to men unconvinced that flatulence equals high comedy qualifies as a 'psychological problem,' then you and I should start a support group.''
Long-term relationships, writes Savage, are ''a series of tensely negotiated truces'' but worth the work. That's not to give short shrift to the short-term: ''You'd be surprised at how many cheap and meaningless flings blossom in time into deep and meaningful relationships,'' writes the guy whose columns sometimes read as if composed on the wet spot. Men who can't keep an erection may not need Viagra or psychotherapy, says Savage. Why not try a cock ring first? In many ways, Savage takes after his literary exemplar, the fabulously successful and underrated Ann Landers, who never presented herself as an expert on the human dilemma, but as a ''bright, brassy, opinionated Midwestern gal.''
Savage is one himself. Reared in Chicago's Rogers Park and educated at Catholic prep schools and the University of Illinois, the 33-year-old writer was working in a Wisconsin video store when a friend announced plans to start an alternative newspaper in Seattle. Uttering the kind of offhand comment that changes lives, Savage suggested that his friend make sure the paper had an advice column: ''Everybody claims to hate 'em, but everybody seems to read 'em.''
Savage had no special qualifications for advice-giving beyond having grown up ''the sensitive little fag around the house.'' That, readers know, did not deter him. One of four children whose parents split up early, Savage was exposed in childhood to the rich range of human drama through his mother, the neighborhood ear. ''Before empathy became an industry,'' he notes, ''every neighborhood had someone like my mom.''
Maternal phone chat about friends' ''drunk husbands, rotten kids, impending divorces, bad perms'' provided subliminal tutoring on same, but it was being ''young, rude, and a fag,'' he says, that made him the perfect person to hold forth on sex in the '90s. ''It pisses straight people off when I mention this, but the simple fact that I'm gay--the blessing of my homosexuality--was all the preparation I needed to give sex advice.'' Sex, he insists, is the ''central mystery'' of a gay man's existence. It's ''what sets us apart and makes us different.'' Essentialists take note. If his ''difference'' provided Savage with special access to the lore of butt plugs, anal douching, and strap-ons, it still left him lamentably uninformed on the workings of women's private parts. ''I'd had sex with women. More than one.'' Yet as far as he was concerned, the other team's central anatomical mystery resembled ''something dropped from the 23rd floor of the Empire State Building.''
''I was clueless.'' It's a condition forgivable perhaps in a man whose column was originally entitled Hey Faggot, less so in the ''straight boys who send me questions week after week.'' But Savage got himself educated. How? He did what Ann Landers always does and took it to the experts. He asked girls. Women, Savage discovered from talking to a few, have many ways of being stimulated, don't always want to be penetrated, decidedly possess a G spot, and are biologically tricked by Mother Nature into having to ''bed down with men, thereby risking disease, pregnancy, and conversations about Pro Sports.'' (As for men being duped into bedding men--well, who says Mother Nature doesn't like Pro Sports?)
''What people don't always get'' about the column, says Savage, ''is, it's not binding arbitration. You're free to ignore it. Sometimes I say things I don't mean. I say, 'Get drunk and drive fast.' I'm not unaware that that's bad 'advice.' ''
Certain of the columnist's critics have griped that the line between calculated glibness and lousy politics is not always well drawn. Last year, a gay rights group pilloried him for his ''failure'' to promote the rights Initiative 677.Columnist Isadora Altman, claims Savage, ''tried to get me kicked out of the San Francisco Weekly. Dumb earth mother hippie dippie Isadora said I was setting the gay and lesbian movement back 50 years. That would be, oh, 1944, when we were being rounded up and lobotomized, right? She got GLAAD to call my column a hate crime.'' (Altman declined to comment on the charge.) When pro-sex activists from Sex Panic lobbied Savage to endorse a statement tacitly condemning journalists Gabriel Rotello's and Michelangelo Signorile's moralistic pronùnciamenti on promiscuous gay sex, he refused and was labeled a traitor. ''I can't sign on with pink totalitarianism. The AIDS crisis is over. Three years ago in Seattle, 500 people died. There were 30 deaths this year. Habeas corpus. We're stepping over the bodies of women with cervical cancer, elderly gays and lesbians, people with hepatitis, as if there were only one disease in the world. It's instructive that all of the hate mail I get is from fags.''
There's enough of it, apparently, that Savage recently began omitting references to his personal life from the column, stopped citing his partner of four years, and barely mentions the event that has brought him in line with the foremothers of the advice-writing racket--the arrival of an infant son. ''I prefer not to get death threats with his name on them,'' Savage merrily remarks.
''I'm someone who always wanted to have a kid,'' he continues. ''I'd never really expected to luck into a gig where I could afford it." Adopting "was a mellowing experience. It also taught me a lot about my own posture,'' a posture centered, of course, on being publicly out. ''For all the dick I suck,'' says Savage, ''I don't feel that gay anymore. Identity is an act of will, not a fact. You can't take a scraping of someone's DNA for their identity. I think we tend to overanalyze each other. This need to know the reason why something makes your dick hard or your pussy wet can really take the erotic substance out of life.''