The Gritterati

Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York (1986)—the occasionally brilliant but ultimately uneven collection of twenty-two stories she wrote between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-eight—sowed her literary reputation as the lone woman in the “literary Brat Pack.” In fact she shared little with McInerney and Ellis that wasn’t cosmetic: youth, the 1980s, and a tendency to write about conspicuous consumerism in a way that made realism read like satire and vice versa (this wasn’t a trait unique to the Brat Pack—The Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 1987). The book party for Slaves spawned a New York magazine cover story with the headline “She’ll Take Manhattan.” Janowitz spends the profile getting dressed for the party: “She could wear her black velvet miniskirt and the sequined top an ex-boyfriend had got her from fashion designer Stephen Sprouse in exchange for a painting. . . . Janowitz’s newest beau, a Texas oilman named Brady Oman, was in town. . . . He took Janowitz shopping in the East Village and Soho.” (She eventually borrows a dress scrounged up by Interview’s Paige Powell.) From “Physics,” a story in the collection: “When the dinner was over, one of the artists picked up a plate of cake (a special kind of Venetian cake known as a ‘pick-me-up’) and dumped it on the head of a less-famous artist. The less-famous artist didn’t even blink, just called for the photographer to come over.”

Slaves deftly skewered “creatives” struggling to lead aspirational lives in ’80s Manhattan, fictional characters who would harbor particular envy for the life of their author. Janowitz’s glamorously disheveled public persona—one imagined her chipping her manicure on a Rolodex—made her caricatured taxonomy of the has-beens, should-have-beens, snakes, and strivers scraping her borough’s underbelly read like ethnography. Tama was the master living in unusually close proximity to the “slaves,” a contemporary Tolstoy having sex with her serfs. That we’re predisposed to read her work as roman à clef explains the disclaimer to her novel Peyton Amberg (2003): “The author is neither fifty years old nor does she have lice.”

No longer an elegant urban renter who wears her relative poverty lightly, like a charm bracelet, Janowitz, now in her late fifties and living upstate, has become a swamp-Yankee slave to very middle-class albatrosses: dying mother, dwindling money, ex-husband, estranged father and brother. A long way from her literary persona circa 1986, to be sure. In her new book, Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction (Dey Street Books, $26), she does not appear at all interested in feeding the culture vultures for whom a louche memoir by a writer of any New York social scene is choice carrion, nor does she set out to glorify the much-mythologized New York where artists could still afford to live downtown. I myself scrambled to read the book, despite ignorance of the seven novels she wrote after Slaves—having wrongly assumed her to be a victim of career obsolescence. I have read them now, and I don’t hasten to recommend them. Her characters’ maladjustments are imaginative, and the props in their lives plentifully detailed, but she is still at best an unhinged Ann Beattie (which defeats the point of reading Ann Beattie). Elizabeth Hardwick said it succinctly: “She’s a little bit sloppy; however, she is gifted. It’s not Chekhov. It’s Tama Janowitz.”

Tama Janowitz on the cover of New York magazine, July 14, 1986.
Tama Janowitz on the cover of New York magazine, July 14, 1986.

Rather sloppy indeed is the page and a half in Scream she devotes to Hardwick, which all too ironically hinge on the professor losing a student’s story: “Wheah can I have put it? Oh, why, heah it is! In the garbage! Now, why would I have put it theah?” Janowitz turns the same halfhearted attention on Andy Warhol (“He was alone. He was lonely”) and Lou Reed (“easy to talk to”), in chapters that I can only presume were demanded by the publisher, which had, after all, bought a memoir of glamour and dysfunction. She thwarts this by drawing the selfsame conclusion from all her celebrity adjacency: “It’s just hard to know someone who is rich when you are poor.” (Janowitz does not believe in social capital, only capital capital.)

The laziness of these tactics has the effect of suggesting the entire book to be a feat of will, and that it is not on any register a literary project, but an obligation. To wit: “I wish I had kept a diary, because the parties said a lot about the times and the people. . . . I did get to meet many interesting people, though.” She did sleep with Lawrence Durrell when she was nineteen, studying abroad from Barnard: “He was sixty-three at the time. THAT IS A HUGE AGE GAP! I want to say something about sleeping with an old person when you are young. . . It wasn’t his fault. I was just some crazed young woman who wanted to be a writer . . . ”

Whatever its original intention, Scream is a vehicle that betrays Janowitz’s desire to debunk her glamour myth and replace it with a realistic portrait of a struggling writer juggling familial obligations. “Everyone has a captivity narrative,” writes Stacy Schiff in her book about the New England witch trials. “Today we call it memoir.” “I am trapped,” Janowitz writes. “I want to try to explain how I ended up living in Schuyler County absolutely dead broke, in the middle of nowhere, and doing nothing but visiting my mother in a nursing home, trying to clean up her house. . . . My writing career’s gone to hell in a handbasket, and then there’s my kid: she’s not happy. . . . Two weeks ago my horse head-butted me,” she writes. “My life has turned into a sweater with a hole in it: whether it’s raveling or unraveling, it doesn’t make any difference,” she writes. There’s a whiff of downward mobility here, but of the vague, self-inflicted kind. Hers is an American struggle—against the health-care industry, the publishing industry, ties to the nuclear family—that she properly regurgitates on the page, in so much as she nails the self-deprecation memoir necessitates. She performs her antiheroics with aplomb.

Scream begins with Janowitz’s literal inheritance. The first line: “‘I have decided to leave you my property.’ It’s my father on the phone.” She drops the kicker: “My father owns two hundred acres of swampland. It’s mortgaged up to the hilt. It’s got a mortgage, a reverse mortgage, and restrictions.” Her father is a thrice-married, much-philandering pothead psychiatrist. “He knows how to make you feel you are mentally ill if you don’t care for his attentions.” He disinherits her on page 17. Her psychological inheritance is gestured at, in a P.S. he added to a letter he sent her as a child: “I don’t know whether to call myself your father or your boyfriend.” Her brother is a “highly litigious” “Jew obgyn.” On page 257, he accuses her of social security fraud, for spending their mother’s money to take care of their mother. (The extended family makes for good copy, too: “I banged and banged on the door, but my cousin must have been asleep. Only his sixty or seventy pets, which included parrots, toucans, cockatoos, hedgehogs, mynah birds, and a peacock, woke up.”)

But Scream is really a memoir of Janowitz’s mother, her best friend. “Mom was brilliant,” she writes on page 57. “I mean, my mother was brilliant,” she writes on page 245. (Repetition in memoir is rarely a compositional strategy, and this book could have benefited from more editing.) “She was a poet whose manuscripts had been chosen for publication by Elizabeth Bishop. . . . After Princeton, A.R. Ammons picked her to teach at Cornell. This didn’t happen until she was fifty years old,” she writes. (No detail of her mother’s CV is omitted.) A literary manqué, her mother—she calls George Plimpton when the Paris Review rejects Tama’s first story.

On page 18: “My mother is lying on her side with her diapers full of shit. She was a professor of English at Cornell.” I was reminded of Patrimony, Philip Roth’s dry, measured memoir of taking care of his dying father that is effective largely for being thoughtfully encyclopedic: “You clean up your father’s shit because it has to be cleaned up, but in the aftermath of cleaning it up, everything that’s there to feel is felt as it never was before. It wasn’t the first time that I’d understood this either: once you sidestep disgust and ignore nausea and plunge past those phobias that are fortified like taboos, there’s an awful lot of life to cherish.” It is thrilling to read Roth for his control. The joy one feels reading Janowitz comes despite her lack of craft—from the cult of personality she cannot help but conjure, a thick smog blanketing life and writing. I read Roth to see how he thinks and Janowitz to watch how she lives, to take in her amplified reactions to the morbid, comic labor of taking care of an elderly family member. “The home health aide quit. She put a big sign on the front door that stated: ‘I did not want to tell your mother, but I had to quit because there was FECES EVERYWHERE,’” she writes.

You cannot slough off your family, but you can turn your back on New York City, where people come to find their accidental families. “New York City just isn’t the same. There are no cheap apartments, like there are no more misfits,” Janowitz writes wistfully and blandly. Ever the echt New York Jew, she enacts a much more amusing cannibalism of the backwater she’s ended up in, I imagine because she remembers it better: “They had the bleak haunted look of men who had never eaten anything outside of the hamburger, mayonnaise, and Dorito food categories . . . they could have been twenty-five or seventy-five . . . they were all as interesting to me—or more interesting!—than the ‘sculptors’ and ‘artists’ and ‘actors’ in New York hustling and jockeying for position and trying to impress you with what restaurant they had eaten at or who was showing their work or what movies they were going to be in.” The woman famously photographed in a ballgown in a meat locker downtown is now living in a trailer with eight dogs and dating her local contractor. I don’t know why she gave us Scream, this self-portrait of a woman postlapse, but I can’t help but look.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Brooklyn.