Books

Mark Haskell Smith
Naked at Lunch

Mark Haskell Smith begins his journey into the culture of nudism making up reasons not to leave his room at the nudist resort, compulsively checking his body in the mirror (though for what, he’s not exactly sure: “Gravy stains?”). What’s more, his dermatologist has put the fear of scrotal melanoma in him. When he finally manages to faux-casually stroll out to the pool, wearing nothing but layers of spray-on sunblock, all the genuinely casual naked people stare. Worse, they are staring at his penis. This is not supposed to happen: one of the rules of “nonsexual social nudism” is no gawking. He soon realises that the amount of glossy sunblock he’s put on his tackle has turned it into something akin to a “solar flare”.

Smith admits “a strong compulsion to keep my clothes on and to be around other people who also keep their clothes on”. He may be what hardcore nudists call a “textile” person. Still, he’s no gymnophobe. (Etymological hint: ancient Greek men exercised and studied stitch-less in gymnasiums.) As Smith’s odyssey through the world of nudism progresses, he masters the sunblock problem and goes the full monty: “dropping trou” to hike with “naktivists” through the Austrian Alps on the Naked European Walking Tour, going on a “nakation” cruise to the Caribbean, and exploring “free range naturism”. The church of nudism is broad: some worship at the altar of health and others, hedonism. Nudists even have their own zombie horror cult novel: Naturist, Red in Tooth and Claw. With the aid of clippers, Smith attempts to understand the appeal of the sub-subculture of “smoothies”.

A subculture within a subculture is catnip to Smith. His first book of nonfiction, Heart of Dankness, was about marijuana growers and connoisseurs. But he learns that even minus pubic hair, there is plenty of friction, especially when naturist and textile worlds collide, and in the US, in any case, it often ends in court. While there are bars in Spain and even some Christian groups in America where you can let it all hang out, get caught skinny-dipping three times in Montana and a judge could put you away for life. If nonsexual social nudism twists the knickers of religious and other conservatives, it’s because, at heart, they don’t believe nudity can ever be “nonsexual”. Smith wonders about that too, and discovers that more often than not, nudists put on clothes to get their sexy back.  CG

Nero, 320pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Mark Haskell Smith, Naked at Lunch ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG