Every writer has scoffed while observing the bestseller rack: “I could write that crap.” Well, in 1966 the staff of Newsday really did write that crap. Marinating one night in a bar, they pondered cheese-whizzes Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins atop that week’s bestseller list, and a fine hoax came to mind: Why not write a bestseller themselves? Give enough journalists one week to write a chapter each, and maybe, just maybe you’d have something. Something awful.
“There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex,” editor Mike McGrady wrote in a memo to Newsday‘s staff the next day. “Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” In his wonderful introduction written for this reissue, McGrady quotes from James Jones’s Go to the Widow-Maker as an example of the head-clutchingly bad prose they aspired to:
It was a kiss of such thirst and depth and questing tongues that Grant imagined he felt his soul being sucked down from within his brainpan and out through his mouth into this girl by the force of it, and happily he let it go.
Could journalists write as badly as this? Reader, how could they not?
Twenty-five merry co-conspirators, writing as “demure Long Island housewife” Penelope Ashe, hatched Naked Came the Stranger. The plot, such as it is, centers upon Gillian Blake, co-host of a happy-talk radio show with her husband. Hubby cheats with station intern, and vengeful wife bonks everything in the 516 area code: a mafia gangster, a physician, a boxer, a hippie, an ad exec, a pornographer, and not one but two accountants. Gilly’s seduction of a rabbi results in two of the greatest lines ever set to paper:
“More!” she cried out.
Oy, oy, oy…
Oh, and there is more. There’s an LSD trip. There’s a snaggletoothed girl who gives her lovers corned beef sandwiches. Perverted acts with ice cubes and Shetland ponies! And—inevitably—breasts get compared to honeydew melons. Twice.
Naked Came the Stranger vaulted up the bestseller list, even after Times reporters discovered that most of the Penelope Ashes in question were slapping themselves with Lectric Shave and pocketing a press pass each morning. It was destined for greatness anyway, you see. Naked Came the Stranger is of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.