Attack of the Anti-Heroes : It’s high time for Bret Easton “Wunderkind” Ellis to surprise us, try something new. : THE INFORMERS, <i> By Bret Easton Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 226 pp.)</i>

<i> Neal Karlen is the author of "Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band," to be published this month by Times Books</i>

Joe McGinniss’ gravest crime against literature was not “The Last Brother,” the author’s recent and ridiculous faux-biography of Ted Kennedy. Rather, McGinniss’ worst felony was rushing Bret Easton Ellis, his fiction-writing student at Bennington College, to publish “Less Than Zero” at age 21.

Ironically, the 1985 first novel was an excellent beginning for an obviously talented writer; “Less Than Zero” provided a provocative snapshot of a time when the anomic ditherings of idle, rich, drug-addled, white-bread Los Angeles young adults was considered fresh material. Bearing a canny journalist’s eye for detail and dialogue, Ellis’ storytelling already carried the complete lack of sentiment and empathy of a seasoned nihilistic novelist.

Ellis became a famous, best-selling young writer and was touted as the voice of a generation. But like a rookie phenom pitcher without a second pitch, Ellis immediately ran out of what ballplayers call stuff .

Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer earned their material and early anomie through actual life experience; both had been to war by the time they were famous writers in their early 20s. Bret Easton Ellis, however, had only been, apparently, to Bennington. Walled in by his own youth and too early fame from any adult life experience, he refused to learn any new pitch beyond the Reagan-era ditherings of idle, rich, drug addled young Los Angeles adults.


Sadly and predictably, during the years Ellis should have been apprenticing his skills and honing his chops, he wrote the same novel over, calling the 1987 volume “The Rules of Attraction.” This time, however, the insights were rarer, the humor almost absent, the prose as flat as a day-old latke . His characters, meantime, had degenerated into half-dimensional Barbie and Ken dolls.

Ellis was writing worse and acting stupid. In time, his Manhattan nightclub shenanigans, constantly and mockingly detailed by Spy magazine, provided a much more tragic story than anything he was typing.

By the time “American Psycho,” his last novel, was published in 1991, Ellis was largely a joke among the young cognoscenti who’d once made him famous. That book, filled with the excruciating, affectless murderings of a serial killer, became a cause celebre when it was boycotted by feminists as misogynistic pornography. The book was indeed a horror; by now Ellis had seemed to give up even the pretense of writing, and was content to simply transcribe lists of tony clothing manufacturers from the back pages of GQ.

Sadly, the publication of “The Informers,” Ellis’ newest book, is not a case of a literary comeback of a written-off one-hit wonder, but a further slide down for an author who long ago had it. Ostensibly a novel, the book is a plotless collage of short stories alternately narrated by a rogues’ gallery of human monsters whose characters are developed with technical dexterity.

There is, for example, the club-hopping vampire who drains his bimbo pickups’ blood dry; the dazed-on-downers studio wife who sleeps with her kids’ friends; the rock star who makes underage prostitutes eat Kleenex; the young man who unashamedly rifles his just-dead friend’s pockets for salvageable marijuana seconds after a hideous car accident. For a point, one must turn to the novel’s publicity write-up, where we learn that the characters are “all suffering, whether they admit it or not, from no disease other than the death of the soul.”

Unfortunately, Ellis’ publicist is a more interesting writer than Ellis, whose anti-heroes swim in swamps duller than bongwater. His notorious sex passages are often detailed with the kind of plodding, leering, badly described scenes published in Penthouse Forum: “The girl is pretty, blond, dark tan, large wide blue eyes, Californian, a T-shirt with my name on it, faded tight cutoff jeans. Her lips are red, shiny, and she puts the magazine down as I slowly move toward her, almost tripping over a used dildo that Roger calls the Enabler.”

When Ellis isn’t writing about brutal sex or casual murder--which isn’t often--his scenes can sound like the product of an introductory fiction-writing workshop where students are told to record exactly a banal, everyday scene. “The Librium I took at dawn has worn off and my mouth feels thick and dry and I am thirsty,” Ellis writes. “I get up, slowly, and walk into the bathroom and as I turn on the faucet I look into the mirror for a long time until I am forced to notice the new lines beginning around the eyes. I avert my gaze and concentrate on the cold water rushing out of the faucet and filling the cup my hands have made.”


And then there are the sex-and-slice passages so nauseating that it doesn’t matter if a joke is intended. At one point, the vampire relates in a relatively mild scene in “The Informers” how “I begin to lick and chew at the skin on her neck, panting, slavering, finding the jugular vein with my tongue, and I start bleeding her and she’s laughing and moaning . . . and blood is spurting into my mouth, splashing the roof, and then something weird starts to happen. . . .”

There is a rancid phoniness to Ellis’s delivery of his chosen demimonde. Again, one suspects the author’s early suffocation by fame. While William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski spent anonymous decades on the fringes living the perverse material they turned into art, Ellis had spent the better part of his waning youth playing the buffoon at Nell’s.

Los Angeles, meantime, is rendered in just the kind of soggy cliches that Ellis dissected so neatly in “Less Than Zero.” It’s not just that he’s hopelessly mired all of his novels in the pre-riots, pre-O.J. 1980s. After all, decades after they were published, Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” and Alison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” still capture the city’s unique brand of status-driven dread with the timeliness of a new episode of “Entertainment Tonight.”

Ellis, however, is unable to transcend his chosen decade, to make his relentless name-dropping of mediocre 1980s rock groups somehow bring his story alive for the latest generation of disaffected youth for whom Duran Duran is of no more cultural relevance than Mario Lanza.

Ellis, at 31, is still young enough to be the voice of Generation X, and it is a mantle he still seems to covet. But he long ago lost that race--and to a rock singer no less. The late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wrote the poetry that will be remembered as the “Howl” of the twentysomething slacker army; his words, “ Here we are now / entertain us ,” long ago swamped Ellis’s entry--the once famous opening line to “Less Than Zero”: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”

Yet even after his precipitous fall from the ranks of America’s most promising young writers, Ellis apparently has not learned the lesson of empathy, either on the page or in life. In the August issue of Vanity Fair, Ellis commented on the real voice of his generation: “The thing that struck me about Kurt Cobain’s suicide is not that I was sad but that it wasn’t Kathie Lee Gifford.”


Like Ellis’ late oeuvre , the statement was opaque and bitter, devoid of both humanity and meaning. One hopes he will spend the coming years working on the craft he abandoned after “Less Than Zero.”