Thursday, September 1, 2011

On "Saturday Night" by Susan Orlean ****

Orlean's "Saturday Night" is an homage to this one special night of the week--really, it's a book of discrete essays, with Saturday night as the universal core to each. Each chapter focuses on Saturday night as it is lived by a certain kind of person: Saturday night for dancers, for band members, for partygoers, for barhoppers, for eaters, and for people who have to work. I was reminded a little of the documentary television show *Insomnia* (I think it ran on Comedy Central but maybe it was on E!), where a man spends the twelve nondaylight hours in a given city, seeing what folks are doing round the clock.

We all know Saturday night, and I suppose that knowing is what pulled me to the book. I wasn't sure that Orlean was going to provide anything new to me, but in fact she managed to do that. Each chapter proves to have some gems within them, little facts or ideas that I hadn't thought about before. Of particular interest, for example, was a chapter on Pritikin diet centers. I'd heard of Pritikin, but I didn't realize the group had centers, where people go to live and to diet. Saturday night there, one can imagine, takes on a different vibe. There is no overeating, no exciting set of meals, unless you're one of those who takes a Saturday night pass. So instead, people gather round their nonfat, nonglam meal and talk about . . . great food they used to enjoy.

Another interesting chapter was that on hosting dinner parties in New York City. This, in fact, Orlean notes, is a rarity for a Saturday night among the well-to-do. Weekends for those of the upperclass New York society are to be spent "away"--at your beach house or some other locale. It is the fact that you can host your parties during the week because you don't have to work that shows you are worthy of being part of this noble society. Wouldn't want to imitate us regular working folk after all. But sometimes, royalty or some celebrity is in town for just a day, and you have no choice to but hold a Saturday night soirée. Oh, the shamefulness of it.

Or get this: We think of Saturday night as the least-watched night for television (or at least I do), but it has in times past sometimes been the most watched. Orlean explores the cult of TV watching on this night and the early history of SNL, which when it first aired was at a time when nothing else was really on and which in those early years became such a sensation that parties would even stop in order to tune in.

She also goes cruising in a small midwestern town, hangs with a group of Air Force folks charged with taking care of the nation's missiles, rides a college bus system that takes drunken girls to and from town, sits with a babysitter, pals with a lounge band, and attends a few quincenera and polka parties. This is Saturday night, all around the country.

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