Sunday Lunch with Tucker Max
The downtown Books-A-Million, on South Clark Street, is not exactly located in the heart of Tucker Max country. Business-casual office workers and well-suited bankers on late-morning coffee breaks mostly cruise past the table stacked with Max's book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (Citadel Press, 277 pages, $12.95), without so much as a second look.
Every now and then, though, someone stops. It's generally a guy, slightly sheepish. And he'll do a brief double-take, taking in the book and its recognizably obnoxious cover, and then gradually begin to focus in on Max himself, sitting behind the table, looking sleepy and hungover.
"Are you the Miss Delaware guy?" one such customer asks, raising a mild chuckle out of Max.
"Yeah," he says. "Uh, it was Miss Vermont, actually."
The customer, dressed in gray pinstripes, seems not to register that there might be any difference.
"I loved that story, man," he tells Max, who doesn't seem particularly eager to rehash the details of his "relationship" (if that is the appropriate word for a series of drunken evenings and random sexual encounters in semipublic places) with Katy Johnson, a former beauty queen turned advocate for teen chastity and character education. It is not, of course, that Max is shy; it's just that the details, all published on his Web site, tuckermax.com, speak for themselves.
Web site a big hit on campus
Pinstripe man, who appears to be in his late 30s and is wearing the sort of not-quite-right-for-the-suit shoes that give him away as a long-term bachelor, goes on, in worshipful terms, to tell Max how cool he is and then to invite him to a pickup basketball game the next morning. He hands Max his business card but does not buy a book. Max does not hold on to the card.
At the end of the morning, Max has signed 41 books. He has also paid $26 to park in a nearby garage. So the profit on the day is, he figures, something like $15, if you don't count the cost of renting the SUV he drove to get here.
Max, 30, is a self-described Internet sensation. His Web site, continuously updated with new tales of drunken debauchery and bizarre sexual exploits, is enormously popular, especially with college kids. He's working on radio, TV and screenplay deals and traveling the country on a self-managed book tour/fraternity-esque road trip.
He is also a University of Chicago graduate with an impressive academic pedigree.
We're headed to his old Hyde Park stomping grounds -- what's better than Harold's Chicken Shack? -- when I ask him how he reconciles an admittedly eggheaded college experience with his current, New York-based reputation as some sort of uber-frat boy.
'I like drinking. I like hooking up'
"The irony of ironies is that I'm considered the premier partier of my generation," he says matter-of-factly. "But if I'd gone to U. Va. and joined Phi Psi and drank and f----- and whatever and not had the intellectual wherewithal to write it all down, I wouldn't be anyone. The whole Tucker Max thing happened because I went to a dork school. . . . I got a great education, but it left me with all that pent-up partying aggression I had to work out. And, by the time I did, I was thinking in a categorical way and ready to write about it."
It's all sort of intellectual and postmodern, until Max reminds me of the primary subject matter of his much-read stories: "I like drinking. I like hooking up."
At that point, it just seems lame.
By the time we arrive at Harold's Chicken Shack and order our half-chickens-with-everything through the bulletproof glass, I find my attention starting to wander.
Surely anyone in this place, I think to myself, must have more interesting stories to tell than Max's thousand variations on the theme of "I got sloppy drunk and hooked up with a fat/ugly/crazy chick."
Fortunately for me, Max doesn't need a continuous stream of questions to keep him talking about himself.
"I've gotten tons of offers to do reality shows," he tells me, between hot-sauce-drenched bites. "But I turned them all down."
Surprised by the idea that he considers something, besides actual adulthood, to be beneath him, I ask Max why.
"I have talent," he explains. "If I do something like that, from that moment forward, I'm that dude from 'The Apprentice,' not Tucker Max the writer, not Tucker Max the Internet legend."
Something pathetic, creepy?
Max is resolutely convinced of his legendary status, and so, it must be said, are the stunningly high numbers of young women who turn out for his campus appearances. Hooking up with Max, and being written about -- with a pseudonym that still leaves room for plenty of identifying details -- on his Web site is a kind of status symbol among a certain set of young women. And, if there is something pathetic and creepy about a 30-year-old guy who goes out of his way to point out that he has hooked up with women (mostly college-age) at a rate of more than one per day on this book tour, Max seems completely unaware of it.
He seems, in fact, mildly offended that I'm not terribly impressed.
"You must be kind of lonely," I say, not really trying to be sympathetic.
"Obviously," he says, "you can't have emotionally meaningful sex with a different person every day."
And, he explains at great length, that whole "emotionally meaningful" thing is, in fact, something he might like to have in his life. But not really.
"I feel like a f---in' dips--- complaining about this," he says, ending the conversation.