Debutante in a Seamy Subculture

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (Random House/Vintage: $7.95; 178 pp., 0-679-72327-7)

"Bad Behavior," Mary Gaitskill's impressive debut collection of short stories, recently published in paperback, runs a live wire into a seamy subculture of artists, artistes and aspirants in New York City who live to "medicate" (take drugs), who frequent gay and lesbian bars, who work as prostitutes while battling for their dignity. Gaitskill stakes out her turf and writes unsentimentally, with confidence and verve. She comes off as that rare author who has lived whereof she speaks--rather than attaching herself to a scene and making ironic, Peeping Tomish notes about it.

Indeed, Gaitskill is the real thing. At 16, she fled her native Detroit for Manhattan where she worked for four years panhandling in the streets and as a strip-tease dancer. Later she studied at the University of Michigan and graduated in 1981, winning a prestigious literary prize.

One of Gaitskill's most memorable stories, "A Romantic Weekend," is a graphic, unsparing exploration of a tryst between a sadistic married man in search of a woman to humiliate, and a disturbed, seemingly meek but inwardly rigid woman who wants to lose, and unleash, herself in passion.

"On meeting Beth, he was astonished at how much she looked, talked and moved like his former victim," Gaitskill writes. "She was delicately morbid in all her gestures, sensitive, arrogant, vulnerable to flattery. She veered between extravagant outbursts of opinion and sudden, uncertain halts, during which she seemed to look to him for approval. She was in love with the idea of intelligence, and she overestimated her own."

The adulterer's desire to make Beth a sex slave--to beat her, urinate on her and make her drink it and to eventually draw his delicate Korean wife into the sordidness--contrasts with Beth's fantasy of "swooning in his arms . . . supported by a soft ball of puffy blue stuff." Gaitskill deftly alternates between the two points of view as the story gains momentum with each emotional twist and verbal parry.

Both parties wind up feeling cheated, and he begins hurling recriminations. " 'I don't think you're very sexual,' he said. 'You're not the way I thought you were when I first met you.'

"She was so hurt by this," Gaitskill writes, "that she had difficulty answering. Finally, she said, 'I can be very sexual or very unsexual depending on who I'm with and in what situation.' "

Prostitution is a recurring theme in the collection--the look and feel of a present-day brothel. The stories humanize the hooker, the customer and the sex-for-money exchange, shattering stereotypes. Here we have brainy, idealistic hookers and forlorn, romantic johns.

In "Something Nice," Lisette--a newcomer working girl whose real name is Jane--asks Fred, her second customer, how it's done. Smitten by her honesty, Fred returns for more too often; Jane tries, and eventually succeeds at, pushing him away.

" 'Do you really think it's a good idea for you to come see me every night? It's awfully expensive. I know lawyers make a lot of money, but still. Won't your wife wonder where it's going?'

". . . 'Don't you see how special you are? No other girl I've seen like this would ever have thought to say something like that. All they can think of is how to get more money out of you. . . .'

" 'Aren't you worried about getting AIDS?'

" 'From a girl like you? C'mon, don't put yourself down.' "

Suffering pervades these tales: in "Secretary," the story of a young woman sexually abused by her boss; in "Connection," about a woman longing for the ex-best friend with whom she once shared "a complex system of reassurance and support for self-involved fantasies"; and in "An Affair, Edited," when a man bumps into a former lover whose presence he can't shake.

Gaitskill's stories are exciting to read because they make voyeurs of us the way all good fiction should. You come away believing that you've gotten the real goods about life on this particular edge.

The publication of "Bad Behavior" heralds the arrival of a strong, new talent on the literary scene. Gaitskill's clear, direct and distinctive voice humanizes this dark underbelly world, making understandable why people choose to live there.

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