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“Some of the appeal of working there was that I’ve always liked the sense of the criminal,” says Allan MacDonell, author of Prisoner of X: 20 Years in the Hole at Hustler Magazine. “But I’m not a criminal — I don’t break the law, under any circumstances, because I don’t want to go to jail. But I’ve always liked to be around that sort of not-quite-legal, somewhat illicit kind of behavior and activity. So this was perfect. Even though everything we did, we made sure was always legal, it still had a sort of illicit quality to it.”
We’re outside, in public, lounging with coffee on Colbert Sunday, the day after Stephen Colbert’s bukkake-ing of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner. Three short years ago, it was MacDonell’s similarly pointed monologue at Larry Flynt’s X-Rated Roast that most likely precipitated his dismissal. No hard feelings, though. Or just a few. Or one: MacDonell thinks it would’ve been nice of Flynt to offer him something considerably more than four weeks’ severance pay for 20 years of service.
“And the people you would meet,” MacDonell continues. He has a gift for speaking very quickly, in coherent paragraphs. “You’d meet guys who were on government hit lists, guys who the government wanted to take down. It was the kind of environment that had fascinated me since I was a kid.
“I love that stuff. And I loved, when I was there, being able to walk around and kind of bask in it — a little bit — and act like I’m some kind of big shot. I fuckin’ loved that shit.” MacDonell admits this with equal parts resignation, fascination and disappointment. No sign of any actual big shot; just a quick-witted, introspective, youthful, friendly and surprisingly mild-mannered 50-year-old, three years deep into a search for his next career.
P??risoner of Xtraces MacDonell’s rise from the lost depths of American suburbia to the dizzying heights of executive editor at Hustler, America’s MagazineT. Between 1983 and 2003, MacDonell was privy to fascinating goings-on both sleazy and heroic, often at the same time. During the impeachment of President Clinton’s penis, for example, Flynt’s widely publicized bounty (up to $1 million) for tales of imprudent commingling among Republican congressional genitalia resulted in MacDonell playing a pivotal (but actually quite passive) role in Speaker-elect Bob Livingston’s pre-emptive resignation, an event that delivered a resounding kick in the balls to the faux-moralistic Clinton-entrapment machinery. (The kick didn’t stop them, but it at least made them share the front-page headlines Republicans spent so much taxpayer money and labor to create with the ones that Larry Flynt generated for roughly .032 the cost.)
While Flynt’s mission to disrobe the Republican impeachment hijinks complicated MacDonell’s life, one task became considerably easier — writing Hustler’s “Asshole of the Month” column. “It was pretty great,” he says. “You’d have lots of candidates to choose from. There was always somebody, and they were easy to write about, because you didn’t have to dig to find where the hypocrisy was. And these people would really irritate me, so it would be easy to get up my . . . momentum.”
One of MacDonell’s other duties of national political significance was writing — as “Christian Shapiro” at first, and then “Max Cara,” “Hakim Whithers,” “Kurt Blume,” “Victor Battle,” “Aron Cope” and “Alex Marvel” — high-speed porn-video reviews, for extra cash.
“Reviewing is primarily fast-forwarding and taking fast notes,” he says, very quickly. “You’d want to finish the tape within 15 minutes, then 15 minutes to do your review. That’s half an hour, and you get 40 bucks. That means you’re making $80 an hour. That’s big money. Like you went to graduate school. You feel good. You don’t think: ‘I’m wasting my life. What an idiot I am. Who’s going to read these? There’s no lasting good in this. Jesus Christ, I’m going to have no legacy at all. What a dumbo.’ No. You’re thinking, ‘I’m aprofessional. I’m making 80 bucks an hour!’ ”
MacDonell’s prose is tight, forthright and consistently toothsome — at times, delicious. While a front-matter disclaimer reads, “All conversations and events are presented to the author’s best recollection, often aided by the hindsight of colleagues,” the tales ring true and fair. He renders neither heroes nor, with the exception of Hustler’s former cartoon editor Dwaine Tinsley (notorious creator of Chester the Molester who was eventually convicted of sexually abusing his own daughter and, more eventually, died), villains. Perhaps most significant of his many revelations is the quiet, steady undercurrent of normalcy; that, despite all the prurience implied, office life at Hustler and LFP Inc. was virtually indistinguishable from office life in general.
Prisoner of X is MacDonell’s story, but it’s Larry Flynt’s world. And while the author’s criticisms of that world are stark and many, they’re tempered by an overall sense of sympathy and even, at times, admiration. “Larry and I had a good relationship for a long time,” says MacDonell. “And then it went kind of sour in the end. But it only went sour in one aspect, which is that he stiffed me on severance pay. If he hadn’t stiffed me on severance pay, there’d be no sourness whatsoever.