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Keeping score with pickup artists in 'The Game'

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, By Neil Strauss, Regan Books, 464 pp., $28.95

The thing about pickup artists is that they usually don't know how to put women down. They drop them, although the ladies in Neil Strauss's new book about conquering the fairer sex aren't as fragile as the dudes scheming their way into their beds.

Strauss used to cover rock music culture as a reporter for The New York Times. This book, ''The Game," is his account of two years he spent after leaving the paper's staff learning how to seduce and, on occasion, abandon his conquests. The book is as juvenile as you'd expect, given the subtitle. But Strauss's willingness to incriminate himself bypasses mere opportunistic exploitation and becomes disarming, and the book grows highly readable.

By his own account, Strauss is average-looking at best. His experience with women amounts to a string of embarrassments. Like men of all types, he has, in urban street parlance, no game. A friend of mine, whom Strauss was once interested in, confirmed this to be true. But this was before Strauss moved to Los Angeles, discovered pickup artist discussion groups, and paid $500 to have an aspiring magician from Toronto show him how to pull all the women he could want. Strauss's guru has called himself Mystery, and his tactics actually seem to work.

Fellas, this gangly man, whom Strauss humorously describes as looking ''like a computer geek who'd been bitten by a vampire and was midway through his transformation," knows how to make your girlfriend want to give her phone number to him. And he's teaching nerds all over the world how to do the same.

Mystery is a lot like Tyler Durden, the figment living in the imagination of the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk's ''Fight Club": the instructive force that compels Strauss to change his personality (''Style" becomes his wretched new handle), but whom Strauss eventually uses to distinguish himself as perceptive and so much more capable of emotional acuity. (Incidentally, Tyler Durden is the pseudonym of one of the book's pickup artists.) Nonetheless, ''The Game" is a personal-journey comedy that television or movie executives could mistake as a pitch for a pilot or a film. The book is designed to look like a Bible, and the back of the ''The Game" contains a glossary of dating terms that the right Hollywood production could help crowbar into the pop lexicon. For instance, when a man is rude to a woman whom he's trying to ''sarge," he'd tell his ''wingman," ''Dude, I totally 'negged' her!"

Once in a while, Strauss steps outside his wacky circumstances to address a thought that some readers might have about what appears to be a homosocial yet instinctively antisocial community that has traded playing ''Dungeons & Dragons" or programming computer code for playing and programming women. The women are almost beside the point, Strauss observes, after he attains a foothold in this world. Almost. For ''The Game" would not be complete as a journey if there weren't real love in the offing, a development that makes the book's trajectory traditional and its filmability inevitable.

The emotional core of ''The Game" is a lot like the one in ''Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor" by Rick Marin, another onetime New York Times staff member, who in the book transformed from socially ineffectual to vaguely sweet. Both books name drop (Strauss hits on Britney Spears and hangs out with Courtney Love) and demonstrate how the unlikeliest guys luck out in love.

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