An 'American Psycho' Drama : Books: The flap surrounding Bret Easton Ellis' third novel flares again. NOW is seeking a boycott of his new publisher. Other observers raise questions of censorship.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

'Perhaps on instinct, perhaps from memory, she makes a futile dash for the front door, crying out. . . . (E)ffortlessly, I'm leaping in front of her, blocking her escape, knocking her unconscious with four blows to the head from the nail gun. . . . I stretch her arms out, placing her hands flat on thick wooden boards, palms up, and nail three fingers on each hand, at random, to the wood by their tips. . . . After I've sprayed Mace into her eyes, mouth, and into her nostrils, I place a camel-hair coat from Ralph Lauren over her head, which drowns out the screams, sort of. . . ."

So goes the story of Patrick Bateman, a brand-name-sated Wall Street yuppie gone mad in the '80s who tortures, mutilates, rapes, murders, dismembers and even tries to make a meat loaf from the remains of one of his female victims.

Bateman is the hero of "American Psycho," the new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, who rose to national prominence five years ago with "Less Than Zero" and sank from sight with his second novel, "The Rules of Attraction." "American Psycho" has sparked torrid controversy in publishing circles and is now escalating into a national cause celebre, full of the sound and fury of moral outrage.

The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, abruptly canceled the book in mid-November, just a month before its scheduled release, and Ellis kept his $300,000 advance. The novel was then picked up by Vintage Books, a trade paperback division of Random House, which plans to publish the novel by early spring.

The back-to-back bombshells have jarred the industry. Simon & Schuster's highly unusual move has raised questions of censorship from some quarters, and Random House's decision has drawn the ire of women's groups, in part because the book's purchase was ordered by Sonny Mehta, president of Vintage and Alfred A. Knopf, another Random House division, and a cynosure of literary publishing.

Leading the outcry is Tammy Bruce, 28, coordinator of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women. She is proposing a boycott of Random House publications and has started a local telephone hot line that allows callers to hear the "Psycho" excerpt describing Bateman's nail-gun attack.

" 'American Psycho' " is the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across," Bruce tells listeners on the hot-line tape. "The book is . . . in effect, a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women. . . .

"The only way to convey to you the horror of this book is to read to you a passage." The excerpt, she says, comes from a purloined copy of the "Psycho" manuscript edited by Simon & Schuster, though she would not say how she obtained it.

Although NOW will not formalize the boycott until a national meeting scheduled for January in Los Angeles, feminists are rallying behind Bruce in growing numbers. In a letter that is to be mailed this week to Mehta, Random House owner Samuel I. Newhouse Jr., and Alberto Vitale, the company's chief executive, as well as to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, nine women authors, including Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett, express their outrage at the book and support for the boycott. "Sonny Mehta would not have been so quick to buy the spoils of Simon & Schuster if the book's protagonist had dismembered and tortured a black, Jewish or Indian man," the letter reads.

With increasing opposition to "Psycho," the author and the executives of Random House, Knopf and Vintage are not returning telephone calls. "It's too hot to talk about, even off the record," said one representative who was reached.

Meanwhile, the rumor mills have been working at full tilt and bootleg copies of the manuscript, like Bruce's, have been circulating through the literary underground and appearing in national publications.

Time magazine led the parade of gore in late October, allegedly influencing the Simon & Schuster cancellation with a paragraph describing Bateman skinning one of his victims alive. In this month's issue, Spy magazine treats readers to the protagonist performing oral sex with a decapitated head, and imagining Ellis intoning the lines for the literati at a wainscoted bookstore.

In its January issue, Spy will continue to track Patrick Bateman. The editors have submitted an anonymous 2,000-word excerpt from the book to 10 skin magazines, including Hustler and Swank, and to two vanity publishers. Kurt Anderson, a co-editor of Spy, says that one vanity house said it would not take this person's money to publish the book, and all 10 magazines rejected the submission. "It's too violent for our readership. This really isn't eroticism. It's horror fiction with brutal sexuality," the editors of Cavalier magazine wrote in their rejection letter.

Mehta, however, has said this is a novel he supports. "Sonny has a history of liking some pretty bizarre books. That he would like this doesn't surprise me," says a Random House editor who asked not to be identified.

Ellis' agent, Amanda (Binky) Urban, says that violence makes up only about 1/10th of "American Psycho." "I challenge anybody who cares to read this book to come back to me and say, 'This book is about violence in America.' The book has been wildly misrepresented by dint of these excerpts that are being printed and read."

NOW's Bruce responds: "I have not stopped to count the bodies or the duration of torture."

Three women from Random House, she says, have called her office, talking in whispers, saying they were afraid of losing their jobs if they protested the book's publication. In her taped hot-line message, Bruce states, "There is an unspoken gag order. People are afraid for their jobs if they say something."

Says the Random House editor, however, "I absolutely don't think that's true." Nevertheless, she allows, "As a woman I'm really ill at ease about (the Ellis) book. I dread reading it."

Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine of the industry, reports in its forthcoming Dec. 14 issue that Mehta, CEO Vitale and public affairs director William Loverd are the only people at Random House who have read the manuscript. This, plus the fact that Vintage declined to buy the printing plates of the book offered by Simon & Schuster, has given rise to speculation that the grislier parts of the novel may have been modified. "The book is going through the normal editing process at Knopf," says Urban, who declines to say if changes will be made.

Bruce, who was churning up publicity in radio interviews last week and this week and is targeting feminist bookstores nationwide to support the boycott, says NOW will not demand changes in or cancellation of the novel.

Nevertheless, the specter of censorship has been raised by forces as disparate as Urban, Ellis, the Authors Guild and New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen. And various press reports have speculated that Martin Davis, chairman of Paramount Communications, which owns Simon & Schuster, ordered the cancellation, thereby applying a sort of corporate censorship to art.

But not everyone agrees that a boycott is a threat of censorship. Loren Siegel, an attorney speaking for the American Civil Liberties Union's national office, says neither pressure for cancellation nor the boycott involves an attempt at censorship. "You have a true marketplace of ideas here," she says. "This is a traditional consumer issue," such as efforts by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and his "Raiders" to have manufacturers withdraw products deemed "not safe" from the market.

"Not safe" is precisely how the Time magazine reviewer describes the book, calling it repellent and nauseating.

As for its literary merits, the reviewer notes that it "crawls. . . . Instead of a plot, there is a tapeworm narrative that makes it unnecessary to distinguish the beginning of the novel from its end."

Meanwhile, however, Bruce's excerpts are keeping the hot line number so busy she is planning to add a second line.

THE HISTORY OF 'AMERICAN PSYCHO'

January, 1990: Simon & Schuster buys "American Psycho." Release scheduled for winter, 1990-91.

Oct. 29: Time publishes an excerpt describing a woman being skinned alive.

Nov. 14: Simon & Schuster cancels the book.

Nov. 15: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, buys the book. Publication is planned for spring, 1991.

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