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By Shelly Ridenour

APRIL 10, 2000: 

Cleavage by Wayne Koestenbaum (Villard), $14, 338 pages

While the subtitle of Wayne Koestenbaum's "Cleavage" (now there's an awkward turn of phrase) IDs the book as essays on "sex, stars and aesthetics," it also begs the question: Isn't it all about aesthetics?

Oh, there are plenty of stars -- Koestenbaum makes no secret of his stylish pop culture admiration of and even obsession with Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor and Doris Day -- and plenty of sex, though not of the obvious graphic sort. But all those stories wrap themselves up in, to borrow from a cotton industry jingle, the look, the feel, the touch; not only does he remark "I can never get enough of a celebrity's toiletries, because I can go anywhere with them," he also draws the line detailing sexual liberation as a subset of fashion liberation.

As with the essays of David Sedaris, you're never quite sure what is real, what is embellished and what is simply made up in an active imagination; and, as with the essays of Sedaris, they're often so damn funny you don't care. But where Sedaris stretches out for pages at a time, tying the essays together with a mix of short stories so the whole thing flows as smoothly as a novel, the works in "Cleavage" are very much independent's parts of a collection.

Essays like "Fashions of 1971" (a slyly funny riff adding up outre; style choices to create a portrait of the author as a young wannabe player), "200 Women" (a blurby list of favorite females -- celebrities and intimates -- that rolls out with the ramble of a spoken-word piece) and "Celebrity Dreaming" (in which the author recounts REM ruminations on Debbie Harry, Maria Callas and Sophia Loren, among others) are jigsaw essays made up of snippets of thought. Did they start as notes jotted in cabs and at breakfast, or is there a more purposeful, striving construction at work? It is a conceit that rarely works -- see any number of "biographies" by TV-famous comedians; here, though, while there is still an undeniable jokey anecdote feel, it takes all the bits and pieces to add up to the insinuated punchline that is each essay's title.

There is, too, an echo of the just-below-the-surface-of-normality humor that makes novelist Jonathan Ames such a perverse reading pleasure. "I am not a homosexual. I am these days, an individual, chatty and curious, after the type of Oscar Wilde," Koestenbaum writes. "Which means, I am most like Oscar Wilde not in my sexual tastes but in my devotion to metaphor." An admission made even more enjoyable when you consider the dual meaning of the book's title: to adhere or cling ("to cleave to one's wife, home, principles") and to split or part ("Moses cleaved the Red Sea").

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