Frankness goes to Dollywood : BOOKS : SHOWBIZ : BOOK REVIEW

DOLLY: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton, HarperCollins £16.99
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The Independent Culture
"I USED to think that when I became a star, I would have candy and cake and pies any time I felt like it. One need only look at the width of my butt in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas to know that I kept that promise to myself." This is just one of the many memorable demonstrations of what is aptly referred to on the jacket as Dolly's "tell-it-like-it- is style" which elevates My Life And Other Unfinished Business into the upper echelons of showbiz autobiography: arguably the highest and most valuable of all literary genres.

"Dolly has never talked openly," it says here, "until now." This will leave those with a clear memory of earlier Parton autobiographies, myself included, somewhat bemused. It seems churlish to quibble about this, though, or the fact that a certain Buddy Sheffield is thanked for the use of his computers, "the one on your lap and the one on your shoulders". The voice we hear is pure Dolly, and the life of a star of Parton's magnitude is something to be shared on as many levels as possible. For those unable to afford a visit to her magnificent Dollywood theme-park, and with no prospect of purchasing products from the Dolly Parton Beauty Confidence collection, this book will prove a godsend.

That is the end of the story, though, and this is the beginning: "January 1946, the coldest day of the year. A biting wind blows the snow sideways through the remote hills of East Tennessee." Dolly's harsh but fair upbringing as the fourth of 12 children in a family of poor Smoky Mountain share- croppers is the well of all her wisdom. She is not afraid to dig into the earthier side of farming life: the moment when, poised over the slop bucket, she felt the un- welcome intrusion of a raccoon's nose, or the time a brother was found substituting a taboo part of his anatomy for the bottle when hand-rearing a calf ("Damn, dad, are you just going to stand there and let this thing eat me up?").

The three most powerful forces in Dolly's life are, she confesses cheerfully, God, music and sex (that pecking order being "subject to change without warning"). Given that her favourite childhood haunt was a derelict chapel, where she would alternate between playing hymns on the old piano and examining the dirty pictures graffiti'd on the wall, perhaps this is no surprise. This book brings out the links between old-time religion and sexuality with a clarity academic analysis could not hope to match.

Here is Dolly in church: "So there I sat, trying to be holy ... all the while being aware of the boys looking at me, the woods behind the church and the possible combination of all these things. The devil and I certainly had one thing in common; we were both horny." And again at her baptism: "When I was 12, these body parts that were destined to become my calling- card in life and the reference point for many a joke by late-night talkshow hosts were already well in evidence. My white cotton dress became transparent in the rushing water and the boys on the bank were moved to shout `Hallelujah'."

Frankness - straight talk, to borrow the title of her entertaining cinematic two-hander with James Woods - is central to Dolly Parton's myth. So it should come as no surprise that she confesses to having stolen from room service trays as a star-struck but starving Nashville teen, or stopping her car to streak through Tom Jones' back yard, just for the hell of it. There is still something exhilarating about the force with which she speaks her mind - "Being a woman in show-business is like being a bird dog in heat. If you stand still they'll screw you. If you run they'll bite you in the ass... A smart woman can take a man who thinks with his small head and quickly turn the would-be screwer into the screwee."

Intriguing light is shed on Dolly's fascinating relationship with her husband Carl Dean, an enigmatic character who happily stays at home tinkering with cars while she jets off round the world raising hell. She was once asked on a talk-show if she believed in living together before marriage. She replied "Hell, I don't believe in living together after you're married." A similarly admirable, no-nonsense attitude characterises even the discussion of her own weaknesses: "I do not overeat because my mother slapped me when I was five. I overeat because I'm a damned hog."

Only in one respect is Dolly's life less than the perfect role model for strong women and the men who are strong enough to stand by them. And that is in the troubling area of plastic surgery, of which she confesses herself to be an enthusiastic advocate, to the point of congratulating individual practitioners on jobs well done. Even here, though, her charm and forthrightness all but carry the day. When Dolly Parton asserts that "my spirit is too beautiful and alive to live in some dilapidated old body if it doesn't have to," only the most die-hard scalpel-sceptic will feel inclined to disagree with her.