David Henry Sterry
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Buy *Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent* online

Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent
David Henry Sterry
Regan Books
256 pages
February 2003
rated 2 of 5 possible stars

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Have you ever played the drinking game “I Never”? Oh, it’s great. You go around in a circle, and when it’s your turn, you have to say something true that you’ve never done. For example, I could say, “I never...have been to Minnesota.” If anyone else has done the thing you haven’t done, they have to drink (so anybody who has been to Minnesota has to take a drink). If you can make everyone else drink, you rock. If nobody else has done it either, then you take a penalty drink for coming up with a stupid answer (who even wants to go to Minnesota, anyway?). As you can imagine, there’s plenty of room to humiliate/intoxicate fellow players with well-chosen bits of information. Now, if I were playing “I Never” with David Henry Sterry, here are a few things I could say:

  • I have never been a teenage jigolo.
  • I have never been anally raped by a man in a “SEXY” t-shirt.
  • I have never had sex with a widow while wearing her dead son’s clothes.
And man, oh man, would David Henry Sterry have to drink.

Sent away to boarding school at fifteen, David is absent during the disintegration of his family as his long-suffering mother decides she’s had enough of being smacked around and neglected and moves her female lover into David’s old bedroom while her husband’s away. Now a sixteen-year-old dropout, David is under the impression that he’ll be coming to live with his mother and brother while he attends Los Angeles’s Immaculate Heart College, but just a few weeks before the semester begins, David’s mother announces, by phone, that she likes Oregon and she thinks she’ll stay up there for a while. Quite unexpectedly, David is homeless and penniless, and the nuns – with a notable lack of Christian kindness – refuse to put him up.

What’s a boy to do? Well, David goes for a walk to consider his options. He meets up with a black man whose t-shirt reads “SEXY” in silver glitter (yeah, you know where this is going), who offers him a steak. Sheltered David fails to realize the implications and tags along docilely; after stuffing his face with steak and falling asleep, the boy awakens in excruciating pain, feeling as though he’s being ripped in half. Terrified, David throws the man off and flees, ending up rooting miserably around in a Kentucky Fried Chicken dumpster with his pants soaked in his own blood. The manager, Sunny, sees him and beckons him out, offering him a job in the restaurant. When David does well frying chickens, Sunny offers him a chance to be a chicken (a.k.a. young male prostitute). With many misgivings, but desperately poor, David agrees to give it a shot.

Like your typical vice peddler, David must wear a pager at all times and respond to a call immediately, though there may be up to a week’s delay before the actual appointment. When he gets a client, David’s job is to show up, get the money, and do anything that the client wants him to do (although, after the “SEXY” incident, David refuses to take any male clients). Well, we all know humans are depraved creatures of lust, and that one man’s super-hot sex scene is another man’s laff riot; David satisfies his clients as well as he’s able, often garnering $50 or $100 tips in addition to his regular fee (and remember, this was back in the 1970s, when $100 would buy you, like, a house). He’s in the money, he’s in the money... but the schedule is screwing with his attempts to woo a sweet all-American girl, and he’s developing a real anger-management problem to boot. Could it be that sex work isn’t quite the nonstop party he had imagined?

Sterry is entertaining and tells a lively tale, though he’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny despite the outrageousness of his material. As this is a memoir, Sterry integrates childhood memories into his sordid tales; alternating paragraphs switch back and forth from childhood to, well, adulthood. It’s a choppy, odd format, and the two sets of flashbacks rarely relate to one another. Overall, it does nothing for the story except make it more difficult to follow. Since Sterry only worked as a chicken for less than a year before quitting in disgust, there are relatively few hilarious ho anecdotes; without the generous spacing and filler pages between chapters, this could quite easily have been a 100-page book. If you took out the irrelevant childhood meanderings, it would be no more than a full-length article in a literary magazine, and maybe that’s exactly what it should have been. Ready to play a little “I Never”? I never... wasted $24.95 on this disappointingly slim let-down of an oddly untitillating memoir. I sure hope you’re not drinking.

© 2003 by Stephanie Perry. Originally published on Curled Up With a Good Book at

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