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Antonia Crane, Barnacle/Rare Bird Books 2014

The very existence of this book stands as a testament to one of the oldest clichés there is: Sex sells. If it didn't, Spent would never have been published, and I wouldn't be reviewing it; let's admit that right up front.

This is not meant as a slam on Antonia Crane, who tells her story in these pages, starting in Humboldt County and moving on to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Along the way she drifts into drug addiction, stripping, happy-ending massage and a bit of prostitution. Most of the book details her struggles to escape this hard-knock life, and the inexorable gravitational forces that repeatedly pull her back into it.

We've heard this story before, and all the usual suspects are here: bulimia, cutting, low self-esteem, an abusive stepfather. But Crane tells it well. Her prose is direct and unflinching, and she is gifted with the turn of phrase. "Mom raised me to believe I could do what I like with my body," she says. "She hadn't raised me to sell my body for money, but she hadn't raised me not to sell my body for money either."

She also has a robust sense of humor. "A tranny in a wheelchair was bumming change out front while smoking a Pall Mall. 'Nice wig,' she said. I dropped a couple quarters in her Styrofoam cup. She glared at me. 'You idiot. That's my coffee.'" But for every laugh there's something that will make you feel a little queasy.

The author of a book like this enters into a strange compact with her audience. We agree to listen to her story, and hopefully throw down a few dollars for the privilege; she agrees to share the most lurid and degrading details of her life. We get to be titillated in the safety of our own homes and feel better about our own mistakes and compromises. "Sure, I worked for years at a job I hated," we get to say to ourselves. "But I never did that."

To her credit, Crane (for the most part) does not play the victim. She is frank about the choices she's made and accepts responsibility for them. If you want to zoom out a bit and put her story in a larger societal framework, that option is certainly available, but she mostly avoids politics.

To her additional credit, she avoids the cop-out warm-and-fuzzy ending typical of this kind of book. "I'm forty years old, still stripping and giving handjobs to pay my rent," she writes. "I have no clue how to leave this industry and enter the work force. This is the work force. The way out is the way in is the way out."

Be that as it may, Crane has something to be proud of in this book, which is well written and well designed, and boasts blurbs from Cheryl Strayed, Stephen Elliott and, for some reason, Moby. A cynic might say that revealing yourself in print is just another form of stripping, but telling your own story in your own words can't help but be — to indulge in an overused word — empowering.

You've already decided by this point in the review whether Spent is your kind of book. It won't change your life (unless you're a young woman prone to making bad decisions — in which case, well, it might). But you could do far worse with your literature dollar, and whether you want to cry along with her as her mother dies from cancer, or skim through 'til the next dirty part, I'm sure Antonia Crane will be glad to have you for a customer.


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Bill Cassel

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