Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America

by Lily Burana

Published by Hyperion

328 pages, 2001

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Retail Genitalia

Reviewed by David Abrams


On the voyage of self-discovery and fulfillment, some people take a year off after grad school and join the Peace Corps. Others go live in an ashram, meditating and harmonizing with their inner gods. Some climb mountains, or sail around the oceans in dinghies, still others bike across America.

Not Lily Burana. She got naked.

And you can read all about it in her memoir-up-to-this-point, Strip City. It's subtitled A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America, and that should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this 328-page good-bye letter to sequins, pasties and cash-stuffed G-strings. At times it's brazenly funny, at times it's brusquely polemical, but rarely is it shocking. There's a certain prudishness clotting the atmosphere of Burana's tale of strip joints and peepshows. If you can imagine a furiously blushing Walt Disney sitting at the tip rail and waving twenties in the general direction of a well-clothed crotch, then you'll have some idea of the kind of PG-13 restraint found in Burana's narrative.

Here's the setup: Burana had worked as a stripper, off and on, for six years. She quit to pursue a career as a journalist. Then, after being out of the strip business for five years, she meets and falls in love with a cowboy she met in a Wyoming bar. They get engaged and that's when Burana has a crisis of the soul: she wants to have one last fling with getting nekkid in public.

Like veterans compelled to revisit a battle scene or refugees who years later sojourn to the homeland, I need to go back in order to move on. That's why the desire for this is so pressing, I realize. It's nothing I can reason away. You don't always choose your journeys in life. Sometimes they choose you.

It appears that Burana had a copy of I Ching propped open on the desk while writing this.

Polemics and "All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at the Dancing Beaver" aside, Burana takes us on a journey through America's strip clubs (about 2500 by rough estimates from The Exotic Dancer Bulletin ) from Dallas to Anchorage as she works a couple nights here, a couple hours there. Along the way, she journeys back through her life (perhaps because "it chooses her"?). And so we see how she began, at 18, working at Peepland on New York's 42nd Street:

I know the threshold I have crossed, that I have entered a dangerous and possibly damaging world. This is not cosmetic defiance like being a hardcore kid; a very serious taboo has been broken, and there is no turning back. This is scary, but in a small, sleazy way, it's exciting, too. I never would have thought that I'd do something like this, but now that I have, I am full of my own daring. I feel more in control of my life than I have in months.

That same feeling of "gee-I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this" continues through the rest of the book. When she's not describing the Life with wide-eyed wonder, she takes time out to ponder the real question at the heart of the matter: why do men go to strip clubs?

I'm mystified -- I squint at them contemptuously and try to puzzle it out. Sometimes, if the tips aren't coming fast enough, I corner them: "What are you doing here?" "Is that a wedding ring? Why aren't you home with your wife?"

Don't come to Strip City looking for much more than an often-trite account of the ache of leaving something behind (turning a chapter in your life, so to speak). If you don't mind spending a couple hundred pages doing so, then by all means crack open the book.

Don't get me wrong -- Burana is a very competent writer (sentences like "the sax player goes crazy, splatting, honking and wailing as Tempest peels off layer after layer" roll trippingly through the brain) and she writes with sincerity. It's just that I learned nothing new about the strip industry that I didn't already know from seeing those countless scenes in movies where lowlifes meet in smoky bars to discuss matters of great criminal importance. In the blurry background, there's usually a couple of girls with vacant eyes swiveling their hips or kneading their breasts or doing pole gymnastics -- but they're always there to serve as mute mannequins: window dressing to boost the movie's rating toward an R.

Burana at least allows the mannequins to speak, but -- save for a few characters -- we still don't get a sense of the Inner Stripper. Not that I was expecting Bergman, mind you; but I was hoping for something more than Disney. | February 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.