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Footstool in Heaven by Brett Singer (Donald I. Fine: $17.95; 298 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Taffy Cannon | Cannon is the author of "Convictions: A Novel of the Sixties" (Morrow). and

Brett Singer's second novel, "Footstool in Heaven," tells the story of two nice Jewish girls who plow their way through the sexual revolution and end up as . . . two nice Jewish girls.

Sophie Spivack is a middle-class daughter of Hudson Heights, N.J. We meet her in 1963 as a sexually curious sixth-grader, but the story--a busy one despite the virtual absence of plot--really begins in 1967 when her curiosity has developed into galloping precocity.

Sophie's divorced Manhattan dentist father is remarried to a WASP who dyes the fruit blue to match her decor. Sophie's mother mixes Chivas with milk and passes out on the living-room floor listening to opera. Her alienated older brother dresses in black and plays the Stones loud. It's not exactly the family Sophie has in mind, but she makes the best of it, cadging joints from her father and allowing her brother to get her drunk and deflower her.

Meanwhile, her best friend Melanie is pregnant by her boyfriend Ricky. Sophie's stepmother packs the girls off to Puerto Rico for an abortion, followed by a pool party where everybody does a lot of cocaine and stepmum makes it in the Jacuzzi with a fellow she met on the plane. (The adults in this tale are just as randy as the young folks; the overall level of sexual preoccupation is astounding.) Back in Jersey, Sophie takes up briefly with Ricky's cousin Bobby. Ricky and Bobby, indisputably nice Jewish boys, go off to Harvard and Stanford.

Sophie and Melanie respectively flunk out and drop out of college in the first semester, regroup in Berkeley when Ricky dumps Melanie and promptly get busted. And what do two nice Jewish girls from Jersey do when they find themselves down and out in the Bay Area in 1969? First a lot of speed, while living off Sophie's brother (who's now sleeping with Melanie who's also sleeping with Sophie's old beau Bobby). Then they get jobs as topless dancers.

(The dust jacket, incidentally, claims "the pair finally bottoms out in L.A., working as strippers.")

"Footstool in Heaven" takes its name from the Yiddish folk saying, "The highest thing a woman can hope for is to be her husband's footstool in Heaven." Do the girls get to be footstools? Do they want to be footstools? These underlying questions propel the book's second half, a section that is slower-paced yet ultimately more compelling than the frenetic scattershot sexual and drug adventures of the first half.

Which is not to say that sex and drugs don't still abound. Ricky's at Harvard Med and wants Melanie back, but she's living in a lesbian commune and writing a frequently autobiographical alternative newspaper column called "Addenda and Pudenda." Bobby's in Jerusalem studying to be a rabbi and pining for Sophie even as he develops a relationship with an Israeli. And Sophie's back in Berkeley on heroin.

Singer has created an enormous cast of appealingly eccentric characters and has a marvelous feel for the idiosyncratic detail. "Footstool in Heaven" is beautifully written and often very funny.

Unfortunately, however, Singer has shot herself in the foot by telling her story in the present tense. This is very much a historical novel, crammed with details that are right on the money for evoking the mood and feel of its various settings from 1963 to 1977. This is not a story that could have happened at any other time, and we know it's not 1969. The present tense is jarring, getting in the way of the mood Singer has so carefully created.

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