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What They Wanted Before They Wanted Money : STILL LIVES <i> by Scott Sommer (Viking: $18.95; 272 pp.; 0-670-82582-6) </i>

<i> Rubin is a free-lance writer. </i>

I have nothing against New York. Some of my best friends are New Yorkers. I’ve enjoyed--and written favorable reviews of--novels set in New York. I’m from New York myself. Still, I can’t say my heart leaps up when I get hold of yet another New York novel.

It’s not that New Yorkers are any less interesting than Southerners, Westerners, Texans, New Englanders, or folks from Baltimore. It’s more that the New York novel, as practiced by Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney et al seems based upon the assumption--widely held by New York writers, still more so by New York editors (which means most editors)--that it is a significant accomplishment merely to set down on paper some record--however sketchy and superficial--of life in the Big Apple.

Thom Frankle, the hero of New York writer Scott Sommer’s fourth novel, is a photographer. His “introspection,” we are told, “began and ended with the photographic interface of surfaces.” Thom has long since ceased to dream of “making it.” Instead, he struggles to make ends meet. As the story opens, he’s just lost a job he despises, taking pornographic pictures for Concupiscence magazine. The woman he’s been living with--a soap opera star--has run off with someone else. Moreover, she’s threatening to evict him and to take custody of their dog Jack. Thom himself is hardly blameless. He’s lost his job at Concupiscence for sleeping with his boss’ mistress, a model named Laurie Larsen, who blithely dismisses their affair as “lust.”

Thom gets a not very lucrative free-lance assignment for Trend magazine, but loses out when the person who hired him is fired herself, and Trend is bought by the owner of Concupiscence, who puts Laurie Larsen in charge. When Thom asks her help, confessing his difficulty in making ends meet, she replies, “At twenty-six, and with my own magazine, I can assure you I didn’t get here by trying to make ends meet.”

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“Still Lives” at first seems to be a picture of vacuous, shallow, “still” lives. But dangers more menacing than boredom also stalk the characters: cancer, radiation, crime, pollution, drugs, unemployment and homelessness. Thom has a pair of friends from his Brooklyn boyhood, both of whom always manage to top him when it comes to relating their latest misfortune. Harry Chambers is an aspiring writer and wounded Vietnam veteran who spends much of his time in detoxification wards. Toupeed Stanley Stark is a lawyer involved in prosecuting toxic dumping and terrified he’s being targeted by mob-connected polluters. Stanley’s wife, Susan, about to divorce him and on the verge of a nervous breakdown herself, is convinced that Stanley is psychotic. Yet to Thom, Stanley’s obsessions with toxic waste and human corruption seem to have an all-too-believable basis in reality. All three friends are involved in a world of coke-dealing, pornography-producing, money-chasing “users.” The only rays of light on this murky scene are the sought-after dog Jack; a young widow, Constance Frame, and her son Nick; and a strange voice quoting Scripture that Thom hears from time to time.

Sommer conveys the peculiar ambience of the media-world, where fast-lane types bound for the big time bump elbows with friends and associates who are only just managing to keep their heads above water, and where people often move from one category to the other overnight. Instability is the keynote: Values have been relegated to the realm of self-castigating asides--stand-up comic one-liners the characters ruefully deliver as they proceed to sell out: “What was it we wanted before we wanted money?” asks one. “I can’t even remember.”

Sommer has endowed this snapshot of demoralized modern life with a very explicit religious theme. The epigraphs prefacing the book are from Matthew 9:29 and T. S. Eliot. In the course of the novel, Thom furtively visits empty churches, hears a voice, and comes to a realization: “It occurred to him that whenever he had been kind, he hadn’t felt alone, and this feeling had provided him with consolation.” Shallow though he is, Thom recognizes the soullessness of the world he’s been caught up in, and resolves to begin a better life with Constance and little Nick.

Sommer’s rendition of the media world is deft and insightful enough, and one can hardly quarrel with the notion that even “post-modern” people can and should save their souls by embracing Judeo-Christian ethical values. But this novel still seems strained, forced, curiously awkward amid its glibness. The writing veers disconcertingly from the flippant to the pontifical. The characters lack depth and definition, which is all very well when they are supposed to represent shallowness, but which becomes a drawback when we try to understand why Thom and Constance represent something better.

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The aridity of modern life and the search for lost values can certainly be complementary themes, vide “The Waste Land.” But Sommer’s interweaving of the two is an uneasy blend of the sardonic and the sententious. There’s a parallel to this problem in the story itself. For years, Thom has been working on a serious project of his own: a book of photographs tentatively titled “Where They Lived and What They Lived For.” But as he snaps photo after photo of city life, he finds he can’t seem to avoid the cliches of an “exhausted genre.” His plight bears a striking resemblance to that of the New York novelist.


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