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Turn Your Head and Giggle

Mark Leyner and an M.D. pal squeeze a best seller out of bodily curiosities.

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At first glance, Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini looks like a fairly standard entrant in the wacky-questions-and-answers category, tackling such stumpers as “What causes morning breath?” and “Is it dangerous to perform colonic irrigation on yourself?” There are, however, three noteworthy elements to the book: (1) It’s quite funny and, at times, gleefully surreal; (2) its co-author, along with Billy Goldberg, M.D., is Mark Leyner, the novelist behind such postmodern hits as Et Tu, Babe; and (3) it’s a surprise best seller, hitting No. 2 on Amazon and trailing only Harry Potter on the Barnes & Noble list. Goldberg and Leyner spoke with New York about instant-messaging and the art of mixing medical fact with Leyneresque exaggeration.

Billy, how many of these answers did you know off the top of your head? Be honest.
BG: None of them. I mean, I had sketchy ideas, but I didn’t have the true answers. The original subtitle was Things They Don’t Teach You in Medical School, and that’s true. You learn very complicated medical facts about anatomy and biochemistry. But the simple stuff, they don’t teach you.
ML: Billy basically did all the research, and I hovered over his shoulder and threw in witty bonbons. But there was one extraordinary example in which I actually knew an arcane piece of medical information: the exact chemical composition of that stuff you have in your eyes in the morning.
BG: You know—eye boogers.

So how did that all coalesce into a book?
ML:
We were both working on an ABC show called Wonderland. I was a writer, and Billy came on as the show’s medical consultant. The first night we spent together, I was observing him in the ER at Bellevue. There was a man who came in with his pit bull, who had bitten his ear off. I think he wanted the dog vivisected and his ear extracted and put back on. A Chinese chef came in with a meat cleaver embedded in the center of his head, as if from a horror movie. And was fine! Or as fine as you can be with a meat cleaver in your head.
BG: But it was tricky. Mark has a fan base, and if they see his name on something, they don’t want simply an encyclopedic collection of answers. Then again, the questions themselves are so absurd that they give us a certain liberty.

Mark, you’re known in your fiction for a fascination with baroque medical information.
ML:
My abiding interest certainly fueled my enthusiasm. And there are some things in the book that I take special delight in. There’s a story about a German cannibal, for instance. It just happened recently . . .

Is this the guy who found someone on the Internet and then cut off his penis and cooked it?
ML:
Yes—the one who put out an ad looking for a “Well-Built Man for Slaughter.” Which is a better title than Must Love Dogs, come to think of it.

The book also includes very funny interludes of instant messaging between the two of you.
BG:
A lot of these books have little factoids and sidebars. But they required more research, which we didn’t want to do.
ML: This seemed like the perfect form to have our own Greek chorus of two hovering at the margins of the book. It’s also a portrait of the two of us and our relationship. And I really love IMing as a new literary form. It’s like speed chess. It’s fast, but if you’re good, the prose will be witty and scintillating and pungent. And you can wipe people out with the speed of your typing. I’m a very predatory and competitive IMer.

That’s refreshing, given that so many people treat IMing and e-mailing as dire threats to literacy.
ML:
To the contrary. All the pop trends lately seem to me to be hyperliterary. Hip-hop is all language, basically. The same for IMing and e-mail.
BG: It all depends on how you do it. If you rely on acronyms and smiley faces, it can become juvenile. Whereas Mark will write dénouement in an IM and spell it correctly.

Why Do Men Have Nipples?
By Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg.
Three Rivers Press.
224 pages. $12.95.


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