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The Pickup Artist

A young author journeys between the beau monde and the demimonde.

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Rick Whitaker's life offers two familiar stories. First, there's the tale of the small-town boy making good in the big city. The son of a railroad worker and a welder from St. Marys, Ohio (population 12,000), Whitaker moved to New York a decade ago and soon made his way into the corridors of culture, drinking in a heady brew of opera and ballet, philosophy and literature.

He was assistant to the fiction editor Gordon Lish at Knopf, and is currently assistant to Paul Kellogg, the general director of the New York City Opera. He has written about ballet for the New York Observer, and about poetry for The New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Hunter College with a degree in philosophy, he was the managing editor of The Philosophical Forum, which publishes articles with titles like "The Anthropology of Epistemology." His own first book, which was recently accepted by Four Walls Eight Windows, will be published in the fall.

But Whitaker has another story to tell. Until last year, he was also a drug addict and a prostitute. "I was in drug culture at the same timeas I was in highbrow culture," says Whitaker, who at 31 still has the look of well-scrubbed, red-cheeked innocence. "Drugs are expensive," he explains. "I got into hustling to make money."

Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, which details his encounters with more than 100 clients over several years, must be one of the few examples of its genre to spice explicit sex with ruminations on Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. "Thoughtlessness is the crime -- or the sin -- that comes before all others," he writes in one contemplative passage, "and hustling requires it." Much of the book is far more blunt, though, and, says Whitaker, "I considered using a pseudonym. I was worried I would lose my job."

On the contrary: One member of the New York City Opera board of directors has offered to throw him a book party, and another, Brooke Hayward, who published her own candid memoir, Haywire, two decades ago, has written a blurb for the book. Although Whitaker would, of course, like people to read his book, he hopes that his family back home will not be among those readers. He is confident they won't find out about it. "They don't have bookstores in St. Marys," he says -- revealing the still-naïve Ohio boy within the highbrow hustler.


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