Anyone who glances at the Daniel Clowes-illustrated cover of Prisoner of X: 20 Years in the Hole at Hustler Magazine, and thinks, "Wow, that sounds interesting..." will enjoy Allan MacDonell's memoir. Similarly, anyone who reads the book's title and thinks, "Wow, how astonishingly tasteless," would be better off staying away. Prisoner of X delivers exactly what the title promises: a trashy behind-the-scenes look at Larry Flynt's media empire, packed with sex and scandal.
Prisoner of X tracks MacDonell's progression from punk rock hanger-on in the SoCal music scene to "editorial overlord" at Hustler. From his early days as a drug-addled proofreader, through a long career as writer and editor, MacDonell's ruthlessly detailed memoir spares no one, least of all MacDonell himself.
Though working for Hustler does have its perks (hanging out with porn stars, getting to see celebrity sex videos before anyone else), it also apparently has a corrosive effect on qualities like dignity and self-respect. Luckily, though, MacDonell doesn't spend too much time dwelling on how working at Hustler made him feel. He does devote a bit more space to inter-office politics than precisely necessary, but for the most part, his anecdotes are satisfyingly funny, scandalous, or gross (or all at once, like the time he tricked a coworker into eating scabs off his penis).
In Prisoner's background lurks wheelchair-bound Larry Flynt, like a drug-addled Jabba the Hutt. It's hard to imagine a less sympathetic portrait of the man, though MacDonell does seem a little impressed with some of Flynt's more outrageous actions, like dedicating himself to exposing the sexual hypocrisy of Republicans during the Clinton-Lewinsky era.
The book is a fast read, thanks to MacDonell's succinct writing. When describing his decision to go sober after he drunkenly crashes his car, he sums up the state of fresh sobriety with the laconic line, "Never in my life had I been so bewildered in the middle of the day." This kind of writing, plus MacDonell's absolutely unique position within a porn empire during its glory days, make Prisoner of X a surprisingly informative and evocative (not to mention explicit) slice of Americana. ALISON HALLETT