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Picture porn star Jenna Jameson smacking her lips as she prepares to gulp down a juicy Whopper. The hamburger, that is.
The fast-food industry, unlike record companies and animal-rights groups, has yet to resort to such blatant below-the-belt marketing tactics. But in Starbuck O’Dwyer’s satirical debut novel, Red Meat Cures Cancer, however, fictional fast-food chain Tailburger takes a similar step into the gutter.
“The primary force that is used to sell us everything, from cars to perfume to food, is sex,” says O’Dwyer, 35, a Washington-based corporate-health-care lawyer. “These companies want to move their product. It comes down to what lines are going to be drawn, and I don’t think too many will be drawn.”
Colleagues know O’Dwyer as Jeff. “Starbuck is my middle name,” he says, explaining that he’s playing the name game in an attempt to keep his writing and day job separate. Ask O’Dwyer to name his employer and you’ll get a very lawyerly “No comment.” “I’m not in a position to talk on behalf of the firm,” he says. “I think they might take objection if any of my comments, or my opinions about the health-care-related aspects of the book, were attributed to them.”
O’Dwyer’s most notable previous literary accomplishment was a 1998 magazine article on his trip to Japan, though he says Red Meat is the second book he’s drafted since 1993. (Publishers passed on a nonfiction account of his summer spent studying for the bar exam.) He was inspired to write Red Meat after reading Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, which parodies the tobacco industry. “I saw an opportunity to do a fast-food satire that was in a similar spirit,” he explains.
In the book, protagonist Sky Thorne, a Tailburger marketing executive, must devise an effective campaign to counter slumping sales of his company’s trademark product: “four batter-dipped, deep-fried patties of red meat and a bun, held together by five generous dollops of Cajun-style mayonnaise.” His target audience: “alcoholics to deadbeat dads to skate punks.”
When his new slogan—”Why just abuse your body when you can torture it?”—fizzles, Thorne picks a porn tie-in as a last resort to save his job. “Hamburgers and pretty girls…That’s what Tailburger and America were all about,” the character rationalizes. “Who cared if the blond’s shirt was off and she was blasted out of her mind and riding the biggest anal vibrator you’d ever seen.”
Exaggeration is essential to satire. But O’Dwyer argues that this particular twist isn’t much of a stretch. Increasingly, he says, pornography is infiltrating mainstream culture. “The last several years,” he says, “the trend has been to bring adult-film actresses into MTV videos and album covers.”
If fast-food companies have yet to join the porn parade, he says, sexualization still pervades its marketing. “You do see, for instance, Shaquille O’Neal doing a Burger King ad with the theme from Shaft,” O’Dwyer says, “which is certainly not pornographic. But Shaft is a very sexualized creature. If you know the theme song to Shaft, you know that they’re not talking about Tiddlywinks.”
O’Dwyer’s book pokes fun at numerous aspects of American culture, which derive from “bits and pieces,” he says, “of experiences and observances I’ve had.” But when it comes to porn, O’Dwyer, who is single, professes little knowledge. “I’m not a frequenter,” he says. —Chris Shott