A Different American Dream

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In Sam Benjamin’s debut memoir, American Gangbang, we follow an aspiring porn director as he finds what he’s looking for–and what he’s not.

Sam Benjamin lays it on thick in American Gangbang, a cross between a quickie history of the Porn Industry and a 20-something’s delaying-the-real-world story. On the hopes of building an arts career that will help him stay on the wave of pre-work-world liberty and stay-trueness, Sam Benjamin finds himself in L.A., in a swarm of naked bodies and low-quality film reels–and in over his head.

Readers will love this book for its somersaulting series of constant quests to stake a flag at the top of a hill – a theme often found in books about young people searching for themselves. Yet, Benjamin writes less about finding himself and more about finding a way to justify porn as a “real” art form. He seeks answers: Why do these people make films? Why do they test the edges of the entertainment envelope?  What does he ultimately want, dislike, abhor, fetishize? In a book about finding one’s dream, the dream is ill-defined. Yet, perhaps that’s what makes this journey so unpredictable and keeps readers flipping the pages. Most importantly, this author will try anything – from dildo-anal on a bathroom floor, to backyard slip & slide limp-naked yoga poses on screen, chest covered in a giant jello-mold United States next to two writhing, licking porn stars.

Yeah, it’s explicit. But the more explicit it gets, the better, and the writer’s voice becomes stronger. If there is any fault in this book, it is that the strong-willed, porn-educated, commanding voice does not start sooner. In the wake of many feeble-sounding young-20s blogs and books about so-called radicals seeking escape from the “system,” it is refreshing to realize, by about chapter five, that the book’s hero won’t be a helpless case throughout—that he was actually going to make it. There are awkward moments: Benjamin’s parents visiting Los Angeles to take him to the zoo, a scene that only reinforces the juxtaposition of the author’s boyishness and the all-too-adult world he’s fallen into. Another scene begins with Lysette, “a hefty Cuban mulatto power dyke with freckles…” asking, pre-filming, “Ever take it from a girl?” (You can imagine where this dialogue leads.)

American Gangbang is not for the sexually conservative or weak-stomached. With never-ending descriptions of genitalia in various states posture, along with countless angst-ridden young girls getting “pounded” by large, emotionless men, the book can at times feel like a nightmare wasteland. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if that’s all the more reason to applaud Benjamin for writing it. After all, the average reader likely knows the industry through private glimpses, not through intimate descriptions and surface-level analysis. Only the serious academic would likely read the body of scholarly work available on the subject. It’s worthwhile to consider what truly good memoir is for the conservative, the weak stomached, or the wholesomely-padded story-seeker. Benjamin’s memoir bridges a gap, something talented authors should do.

As for the book-long lingering questions: is sex work honest work? Well, yes. But is it healthy work for all involved? Well, no, and perhaps that’s the beauty of this angled-glimpse at the interiors of some of the sex industry’s superstars. Overall, the book entertains with visually striking prose, but also grabs the heart in spots where characters feel so real, you want to reach out and hug them, hand them a towel, and buy them a decent meal. And then admit to yourself—your pity is not pure. After all, here you are, voyeur, eyes wide open.

Megan Roth is a writer and faculty member of the English Department at Florida Atlantic University. She has published and co-written several trade titles and was a recent Michener Fellow at the University of Miami. Megan has been a semifinalist in the James Jones First Novel Competition and the SLS Fiction Prize. She is currently working on a novel. More from this author →