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Zeroing In on Bret Easton Ellis : Embraced by N.Y. Literati for His First Novel, the Young L.A. Author Ponders an Encore

June 29, 1986|SUSAN SQUIRE | Susan Squire is a free-lance writer based in New York

It's a little before 2 p.m. at Woods Gramercy, a peach-walled expense-account restaurant where the tables of Manhattan's publishing power lunchers are spaced discreetly apart. At the round table that anchors the room sits the best-seller task force of Penguin Books, encircling an uneasy college student who is picking at his goat cheese and smoked salmon omelet. Gerald Howard, senior editor, debates the veracity of Thomas Pynchon's vision of Los Angeles. Marcia Burch, director of publicity and special promotions, talks radio spots and store windows. Two other executives sip Courvoisier and stare mutely.

The target of their attention is Bennington College senior Bret Easton Ellis, who smokes steadily, gulps three mimosas to dull his discomfort and has the hunched look of someone about to bolt out of his ladder-backed chair. An hour later, he will confess that he remembers the name of only one of the team that is laboring to make him the most famous young writer since Truman Capote. "I have no idea why all these people are interested in me," he says with apparently sincere bewilderment. "I haven't saved a bunch of people from a fire or become a war hero or something. I've only written a sort of a book."

Bret Ellis' sort of a book, a first novel called "Less Than Zero," delivered the dark side of MTV in stripped, deadened prose. It was an obviously precocious but strangely barren work about emotionally depraved L.A. rich kids whose ranks include a mainlining anorexic girl, a pretty boy who sells his body first to settle a coke debt and then to feed a habit, and a group of teen-age guys who occasionally break from video games to partake of a drugged 12-year-old girl bound to the bedposts of a Wilshire apartment. Though the hard-cover book jacket describes "Zero" as "this decade's 'Catcher in the Rye,' " it's more like a pubescent version of Joan Didion's "Play It as It Lays"--less artful, more shallow, but similar in style and with an equally anesthetized protagonist. In Ellis' case, the latter happens to be a sexually confused 18-year-old boy named Clay who attends a New England college and has come home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation.

The book was a surprise hard-cover best seller for Simon & Schuster and a steal for Penguin Books, which paid $99,000 for the paperback rights and is in the midst of a six-figure promotional campaign. The novel also made its author, a shy kid who grew up in Sherman Oaks and earned a 2.5 grade-point average at the Buckley School, a national celebrity and cult figure just about the time he reached legal drinking age. Last summer, just after "Zero" was published, Ellis stopped in at a now-defunct downtown L.A. rock 'n' roll haunt called Club Soho, and a group of adoring teen-age boys swarmed around him; they had composed a poem, "Ode to Bret," that they proceeded to recite en masse to their guru's considerable embarrassment. In New York, adults with publishing muscle laud him as an important new talent, the voice of his generation. And though there are those who find his novel frightening and offensive and--most cruelly--devoid of literary merit, such controversy has fueled sales and kept the author focused in the public eye.

Now Simon & Schuster patiently awaits his second book. "It's pretty nerve-racking, writing a novel," says Ellis, "especially now that there's a bunch of editors in some huge publishing house in New York waiting to see what this thing is that they bought."

After all the hype, it's disconcerting to meet the author. For instead of a flagrantly degenerate Johnny Rotten or a chest-beating Philip Michael Thomas, he is a self-conscious, laconic young man who, despite being tall and substantially framed, seems lost and vulnerable in his Salvation Army sports jacket and faded black tuxedo pants. He is, after all, only 22, and it may be that his writing emerged full-blown before he did. He was still struggling to grow into himself, trying to get comfortable, when he found himself in the glare of center stage. He's had to grapple with being an icon to some and a cash cow to others, and his manner of adaptation has been simply to submit until he couldn't stand it anymore.

He's grateful to his publishers and feels that he owed it to them to go along with their promotional plans for "Less Than Zero," but he recently told the Simon & Schuster publicity department that he doesn't want to promote his second, as yet unfinished, novel. It is not, he will have you understand, that he is too important or too confident or, God forbid, too arrogant. "It's probably presumptuous to tell them I don't want to promote it, because probably no one will want to talk about it anyway. It's just an innocuous little second novel that probably no one will read."

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