Serial Adultery, Seriously: The Perils of Pretentious Pulp

Peyton Amberg , by Tama Janowitz. St. Martin’s Press, 335 pages, $24.95.

Trashy books fall into two basic categories: first, those bodice-rippers with puffed fuschia-lamé lettering and “sizzling!” blurbs by daytime-soap stars. This group includes Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz-authors who know exactly what they do and love it, and drive red convertibles around West Beverly accordingly.

Then there’s a more insidious subset of sleaze: trash masquerading as literature, potboilers with higher aspirations, in which DD-cup characters quote Ezra Pound between blowjobs and attend public-library lectures between disfiguring car wrecks-the accidental specialty of writers as diverse as Anne Rivers Siddons, Barbara Kingsolver, Anita Shreve and Michael Crichton.

With its combination of lurid sexual episodes, cut-out characters and fatuous observations on the life of the flesh, Tama Janowitz’s new novel, Peyton Amberg , takes a proud place in Category B. Like most trash-lit, the eponymous protagonist’s astonishing beauty helps to speed things right along. But in disappointing contrast to Jackie Collins’ best work-in which dirt-poor Missourians marry platinum recording artists and 14-year-olds engage in wild, unprotected sex with Oscar nominees-Ms. Janowitz, for all her delight in graphic recap, insists on using sex as a “symbol” and a “warning sign” of greater ills in contemporary society.

Take the following passage, perfectly acceptable in its proper context: “No one had ever looked at her this way before, it was more than pure lust: a jaguar sprawled across a branch and she a small gazelle realizing, too late, what lay above. It made her breathless.” For some reason, Ms. Janowitz insists on interlarding these jungle-action sequences with fuzzy (or just embarrassing) moments of private revelation: “It never occurred to her that it was possible to view sex as something other than a purely physical conquest, a release. That there were people out there-including men-who believed sex might be a spiritual communion between two people.”

Peyton Amberg, the gorgeous middle-aged woman with the mid-century porn-star name, is herself decidedly lowbrow: the daughter of a mentally unstable, ex–Boston Brahmin woman and a long-gone Estonian no-goodnik. To escape her sordid upbringing, Peyton marries Barry Amberg, the dullest, baldest, most omni-allergic Jewish dentist on Long Island, a man who dresses for formal occasions in pre-creased polyester slacks and drives “ten miles out of the way to buy cases of paper towels that were ten cents less a roll.” Barry, Peyton discovers with dismay, “never went on a binge, had manic highs-except with joy at seeing her.” Understandably bored after a courtship of teeth-cleanings, Peyton takes a job as a travel agent and sets about roaming the globe unchaperoned. It’s on these promotional junkets-to Rio, West Texas, Vegas, Hong Kong, Milan and Antwerp-that Peyton encounters men with names as improbable as her own: Germano Schmitt-Nausen, the pan–South American/Teutonic financier; Sandy, the Texan dude-ranch operator; Youssef Jones, the entertainer; and-finally, ruinously-Xiang Rong Chen, the Hong Kong gangster.

And yet-have you guessed?-despite these jet-set dalliances, Peyton’s life remains dull, oppressive, intolerable. She has no relationship with her son and no feeling for her husband, and the requisite one friend allotted to sit-com characters is part-time at best. Perhaps it’s because Peyton repeatedly proclaims her detachment from her supposed loved ones that Ms. Janowitz felt free to draw comic-strip excuses for these minor characters. It’s unfortunate, though, that Peyton herself should also lack nuance and depth. There’s her big breasts and her deficient education, her passion for dogs and her Bill Clinton–consort fashion sense, but what else are we told about her? And if that’s it, why on earth should we care?

Ms. Janowitz is careful to spell out the nature of Peyton’s existential malaise-at least once per chapter: “How useless it all was, a lifetime spent on airplanes or arranging trips for others, when ultimately each destination was, in some way-in many ways-no different from the place she had left. If there was a way to travel without taking oneself along, that would be the answer.” “Little Gidding,” anyone? It’s this kind of slam-dunk that betrays Ms. Janowitz’s unfortunate seriousness in this endeavor, which robs all pleasure from the scurrilous Barbara Taylor Bradford interludes.

Rather than acknowledge this lurid catalog of sexual misalliance for what it really is, Ms. Janowitz imagines her protagonist as a modern-day Emma Bovary: a provincial girl suffocating in a badly decorated Upper West Side apartment, a wasted beauty who uses adultery to confer meaning on her life.

Similarities to Flaubert stop exactly there. It’s unlikely that the author who painstakingly weighed every pronoun would countenance Ms. Janowitz’s eidetic descriptions like “yucky” and “totally absurd and yet glamorous”-to say nothing of her unaccountable adverb choices along the lines of “trudged pinkly” and the oft-repeated “foxily.” Peyton’s sentimental education includes the “swoony gushy stuff” of her engagement to the dull dentist and, much later, a flight attendant with a “toothy, oversexed smile and erect whiskers.” (Huh?) Unlike the eternally lithe Peyton, this book could use a major diet: “The main thing was as everybody knew when you looked at a fat person you couldn’t help but wonder how much shit came out when they sat on the toilet.” A truth universally acknowledged?

To judge by the pulpy, bright-yellow cover of Peyton Amberg -featuring a Veronica Lake look-alike straddling a suitcase in a “Like a Prayer” negligee-Ms. Janowitz is willing to indulge in a little self-parody. But there’s no excuse for sloppiness.

Though Peyton Amberg occasionally echoes the aggressive zaniness of Slaves of New York (1986), it lacks the heedlessness-and fun-of the stories that made Ms. Janowitz famous 17 years ago. Or perhaps the problem is of relevance: Once touted as the spokeswoman of hip youth, Ms. Janowitz seems to have fallen rather sadly out of pace with the times. Peyton-a femme fatale fast approaching 50, remember-spouts a bizarre idiom that is half Eisenhower-era, half Christina Aguilera. “I have total, like, jet lag,” she observes at one point-and later, in a reflective moment: “My God, I have a total crush on this guy! He’s my best friend!” This same character reacts to news of a friend’s H.I.V. diagnosis in language of a rather different generation: “Gee, that’s so awful.”

Awful, indeed, that this novel-from a writer of considerable talent-should be marred by pretentiousness and promiscuous carelessness.

Laura C. Moser is the author of a biography of Bette Davis and a young-adult novel, both forthcoming in 2004.