One night last November, novelist Jonathan Lethem was down on his knees pleading before his ex-wife, novelist Shelley Jackson, in front of a small group of strangers and friends at a party in Brooklyn Heights. “He was on his knees, begging Shelley,” recalled Elissa Schappell, yet another novelist and writer of the Vanity Fair book column “Hot Type.” She recalled Mr. Lethem yelling, “You can trust me! You can trust me!”
The rest of the partygoers-including novelist Rick Moody and Cressida Leyshon, a fiction editor at The New Yorker -nursed their drinks and looked on in titillation and curiosity. It might have been an exceptionally embarrassing moment-a drama-queen scene right out of high school-if everyone else hadn’t already suffered similar humiliations that night. After all, it was a Mafia Party.
These days, if you’re looking for a bunch of New York writers, magazine editors and publishing types on a Friday night, track down Mr. Lethem, who has become a kind of mob boss among an ever-growing salon of poker-faced literati obsessed by the spiky parlor game they call Mafia. There’s no money involved, everyone stays clothed, and the alcohol intake is surprisingly moderate-but to witness Mr. Lethem’s disciples in the throes of their favorite game is to know that the stakes run high.
“People got so upset,” said Ms. Schappell, “stalking around and screaming: ‘I can’t believe you don’t believe me! How come you don’t believe me?'”
On that evening, Ms. Jackson ended up trusting Mr. Lethem, but she shouldn’t have: He was lying his face off, and everyone knew it. But Ms. Jackson was swayed. “He gets excited about pleading his case,” she said, explaining why she trusted him. “My knowledge of his character worked against me, because I had too many ways to interpret his signs. And it confused me.”
By now, Mr. Lethem is a pretty good liar. “I’ve probably played Mafia over a hundred times,” he said. Since his novel Motherless Brooklyn -the tale of a detective with Tourette’s syndrome mixed up with the Mafia in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn-was published by Doubleday in 1999, the bespectacled 38-year-old has attracted many dozens to the bluffing game, a kind of personality poker played with one’s own persona as both the hand and the bet. The gist: Among a party of 12 or more people, three are secretly “mafia,” trying to turn everyone else against each other and survive a cutthroat whittling-down of the players, using whatever psychological tactics are necessary. “It’s shaped by personalities in fake conflict,” observed Mr. Lethem. “It’s a lot like fiction.”
That might explain why so many writers are into it. Mr. Lethem has even written a short story about it that will appear in the winter issue of the literary journal Tin House . It’s called “The Vision.”
But if the conflict is fictional, it also has an uncomfortable grain of reality to it, playing the edge between a game and actual social torture. Mr. Lethem’s converts talk about it with the flushed, exhilarated fervor of people who have just tried acid for the first time. “It’s so intense!” said Ms. Schapell. “People are so flipped out. You’re playing a game, and there’s tears in people’s eyes.”
Make that the brown acid. “It’s even more venal than what you experience in daily life,” said Todd Pruzan, a senior editor at Blender magazine. “Most people sell themselves, but most don’t sell out their neighbors, too. This is about selling your neighbors down the fucking river. It’s about saying to your mugger, ‘Don’t mug me, mug him.’ It’s a zero-sum game.
“You have no idea how spooked I was for all of the next day,” he said. Those who have played with Mr. Lethem have come to know a different side of the usually affable author-the Zero-Sum Jonathan. “Jonathan transforms,” said Elyse Cheney, a literary agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. “He gets this very serious tone, telling people to be quiet. He starts screaming that he’s innocent.”
In the last year, Mr. Lethem’s converts have fanned out and started their own games, creating a network of bluff addicts-Six Degrees of Jonathan Lethem, if you will-who are all enthralled with the knife’s-edge thrill of lying and being lied to by friends, loved ones and strangers. Inspired by Mr. Lethem, former Riverhead editor Chris Knutsen and his wife, Nuar Alsadir, have thrown a few Mafia Parties-including the one in which Mr. Lethem prostrated himself before Ms. Jackson-and they’ve learned a lot about one another. “I know my wife well enough now that I can never trust her again,” he said, only half-joking.
Mafia requires all the skills natural to any self-respecting New York climber: deception, treachery, guile-and a high tolerance for acute social paranoia. A Russian psychologist claims to have invented it in the 1980’s, to show how an informed minority (the “mafia”) power-play against an uninformed majority (the “village”). Since then, it’s developed avid followings at Harvard and Princeton, where clubs have formed around it.
In New York, it’s a perfect game for the moment: In a city rife with paranoia, ambitious sharpies can draw together for some good old-fashioned human contact without compromising their sense of themselves as ambitious New York sharpies. “You can scream at people, you can lie to them,” raved 30-year-old Lila Bezerra, who recently hosted a Mafia Party at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, which is owned by her husband. The game was led by Mr. Lethem. “It’s like letting the animals loose,” she said. “To get people to believe you when you know you’re lying-it’s a dirty little game.”
And yet it inspires a kind of twisted solidarity among the players. “It depends on what you enjoy about people’s personalities,” said Marisa Bowe, a writer who, during one recent game, convinced New York Times media reporter David Carr that because they were both from Minnesota, she couldn’t possibly lie to him. “But I love seeing the devious little things people do. You’re so cute because you’re so devious.”
(Of course, later on Mr. Carr didn’t seem to think it was so cute: “She buffaloed me! She fuckin’ buffaloed me!” he yelled. “I’m really pissed that Marisa got over on me. She totally did!”)
Those who discover their own knack for lying tend to love it the most. “Oh my God,” said Rory Evans, an editor at Allure , recalling her friend Hilary Lifton’s first Mafia experience, “the best moment of Hilary’s life in the last year was winning that game and outsmarting the last three people left in the group. Neither of the other people thought she could possibly be mafia.”
Here’s how Mafia works: The party gathers in a room. Everyone is instructed to close his or her eyes, and three people are secretly selected to be in the “mafia” by the game leader, known as “God” or “the Mayor,” whose job is to manage the action. No one knows who the mafia are except the mafia themselves, who are allowed to identify one another by opening their eyes. Later, when the whole group-called “the village”-collectively opens its eyes, they are launched into the game: Through conversation, argument, questioning and accusation, a freewheeling group inquisition takes place to root out the mafia and kill them before the mafia kills the villagers.
The killing first takes place during the “day,” when everyone’s eyes are open. The villagers argue among themselves and vote someone out, one person per round, who the majority believes is a mafia member. The big problem: The mafia is among the villagers, secretly working together and arguing against innocent people. Who can you trust?
At first the voting is tentative, because there’s nothing to go on but gut feelings. And people don’t want to accuse strangers-at first. But the game builds momentum as personalities erupt and acute suspicions come into play. Complete silence can be deadly. “You learn early on that you have to speak up immediately,” Mr. Carr later said. “Otherwise you’re going to end up dead.”
Then again, as Mr. Lethem pointed out, speaking can get you in trouble. “There’s a tendency for loud players to get killed off really fast,” he said, “and for watchfulness to be rewarded. That’s not exactly a strength of the typical New Yorker.”
Once someone is voted out-sent “backstage” out of the circle, where they can only observe the game-“night” begins and everyone shuts his or her eyes, so the mafia can “kill.” The mafia is asked to open their eyes and eliminate a villager by voting among themselves, using glances and hand gestures.
When the next “day” arrives, everyone opens his or her eyes to find a member of the village mysteriously axed. “Day breaks and Shelley is dead,” announced Mr. Lethem, when Ms. Jackson was offed by the mafia in another recent game.
Every time someone is offed, the pressure on the mafia to bluff-and on the innocent to prove their innocence-grows more intense. Paranoia builds.
To make things even more mysterious, two other anonymous people are chosen to play detectives. By secretly asking the Mayor whether a person is mafia each night, they can subtly steer the arguments or furtively give hints during the day-assuming they don’t get killed early on, mistaken for mafia themselves.
During the game in which Ms. Bowe duped Mr. Carr, when half the group had been picked off, the conversation between the survivors-few of whom had met before that night-began to resemble Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit .
“You haven’t said anything for three days,” said a nervous Mr. Pruzan, eyeing Ms. Bowe.
“What do you mean, I haven’t said anything?” she snapped, sounding shrill.
“Whoa! Why is this guy accusing everybody?” said Mr. Knutsen.
“I don’t know why he’s pointing the finger at me,” Ms. Bowe sulked.
“The only person I’m nervous about right now is you, Todd,” said Mr. Knutsen, “because you’re leading the charge.”
“I’m on to Marisa because she’s the quiet one,” said Mr. Carr’s wife, Jill.
“I don’t really have a feeling about Marisa, but I still think it’s weird that she has said absolutely nothing,” said Mr. Pruzan.
Ms. Bowe said that she was convinced that John Wesley Harding, the British singer-songwriter, was in the mafia.
“That seemed like an authentic response right there,” said Mr. Carr.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Ms. Carr said, now pointing to her husband. “I think he’s definitely mafia. For your own survival, people.”
Mr. Lethem, the Mayor, interjected; “Is someone proposing a vote around here?”
Suddenly Bess Rattray, an editor at Vogue , popped up: “I did see a funny eye-contact smile here, ” she said, pointing at Mr. Pruzan and Mr. Knutsen.
Mr. Knutsen stammered, but hands went up: He was voted out.
The game eventually boiled down to four survivors: Ms. Bowe, Ms. Rattray, Christine Hill, a conceptual artist, and Jill Carr, who had insisted throughout the entire game that Mr. Carr was in the mafia. (He wasn’t.) The rest of the group, the dead-including two mafia members (novelist David Grand and, yes, Mr. Knutsen)-stood backstage, watching the last surviving mafia member square off against the last three villagers. When “night” fell, she opened her eyes and picked a poor, doomed villager to die.
“The village awakes and Jill is dead,” intoned Mr. Lethem. Ms. Carr looked astonished. Ms. Rattray and Ms. Hill opened their eyes and immediately looked at one another-and then at Ms. Bowe. They raised their hands in a vote: Ms. Bowe, the last mafioso, was dead.
“Village wins!” yelled Mr. Lethem.
The crowd gave a huge, drunken cheer.
– Joe Hagan
Shelling Out for Sheldon
Just as he’s done for the last third of his life, the author Sidney Sheldon ended the year with a multimillion-dollar book deal, this time for a novel called Are You Afraid of the Dark? , which is expected to be published in 2003 by his longtime publisher, William Morrow. But the octogenarian author will also, at long last, write his memoirs-for another publisher. Warner Books, which has long published Mr. Sheldon in paperback, will release both the hard- and softcover versions of the memoir, cheekily titled The Other Side of Me .
“I think it’s going to be a very big book,” AOL Time Warner Book Group chief executive Larry Kirshbaum predictably told me, calling Sheldon “one of the all-time, above-the-line marquee names.”
But is he still?
For publishing watchers, the Sheldon question goes on a list with others to be addressed in the coming year: Will we go to war with Iraq? Will Pete Rose finally be let into the Hall of Fame? While Mr. Kirshbaum insists that Mr. Sheldon-whose paperbacks, he says, still sell around two million copies per title-is in the Clancy/Grisham mold, others wonder if his memoir won’t go the way of the recent offering from Judith ( Scruples ) Krantz. That similar glitz-and-glamour author’s power base approached full erosion with her 2000 memoir, Sex and Shopping . Published by St. Martin’s Press, Ms. Krantz’s candid account of herself as a nice Jewish girl gone Hollywood may have shown readers that the scarily well-preserved author is “just like the plucky heroines of her novels,” according to People magazine, but on a commercial level, it was “a dud,” said one executive involved with the project: “By the time that book happened, people had stopped reading Krantz. Younger readers had barely even heard of her.”
Mr. Kirshbaum prefers to look to another popular novelist turned memoirist for sales inspiration. The week Warner made the deal with Mr. Sheldon’s agent, Mort Janklow, megaselling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark’s Kitchen Privileges -an account of the writer’s hardscrabble beginnings in the Bronx-hit the extended New York Times best-seller list, and the author won an award from Reader’s Digest . (Ms. Clark’s longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, signed up Kitchen Privileges , along with four novels, in a healthy eight-figure deal back in 2000.) Like Ms. Clark’s, “Sidney’s [life] is a real Horatio Alger story,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “It’s heartwarming.”
Mr. Kirshbaum also points out that before he became a novelist, Mr. Sheldon had a hugely successful TV and movie career. He created such TV series as The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie , and he wrote the screenplays for Annie Get Your Gun and Easter Parade , among others. One could argue that Mr. Sheldon has a wider range than, say, Ms. Krantz and that his memoir will be less personal gossip than Hollywood gossip. “He really spans all of show business and, in some respect, he’s a historian of the changes that have taken place” in the entertainment business, Mr. Kirshbaum said. In that way, he’s more like Michael Korda, the publishing honcho who wrote several successful memoirs about growing up as Hollywood royalty.
But if the autobiography-whose title plays on that of Sheldon’s best-known book, The Other Side of Midnight -promises to be so great, how come Morrow, which has published every one of Mr. Sheldon’s works of fiction since The Naked Face in 1970, isn’t publishing it? While no Morrow executive would comment on the record, it is widely believed in that house and elsewhere that the memoir was originally part of a two-book offering-and that Morrow passed. “Obviously, they didn’t feel it would sell well enough to be worth the money they’d pay,” said one editor. Another points out a crucial difference between Mr. Sheldon and Ms. Clark: “Her books are still huge sellers. His still do well, but he’s no longer at the top of the lists.”
It’s not unusual, of course, for an author-even a highly successful author-to switch houses mid-career. New publisher equals new energy equals new sales, the theory goes. But Mr. Sheldon will turn 86 this year; even the ever-upbeat and enthusiastic Mr. Kirshbaum can’t expect to have many more opportunities to publish a work by Mr. Sheldon. “Maybe not,” agrees an editor at another house, “but there’s real value to a publisher to be the last contract holder of record. Look at Ludlum,” she says, referring to the author who died in 2001 but still has books coming from St. Martin’s. “There still can be money to be made.”
– Sara Nelson