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A Sign of the Eighties by Gail Parent (Putnam's: $17.95; 319 pp.)

May 17, 1987|Jean Vallely | Vallely is West Coast editor of Gentleman's Quarterly. and

I watched Woody Allen's "Radio Days" and didn't really get it. The audience laughed and cried. I kept looking at the screen thinking "Who are these people?" So when it was proposed that I review Gail Parent's new book, "A Sign of the Eighties," I hesitated. Parent, a well-known Jewish humorist, is the author of five novels, including "Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York." Perhaps this Irish Catholic girl from Boston wouldn't get it?

Wrong!

"A Sign of the Eighties" is a terrific book, funny--really, really funny--and I get it! It transcends Jewish humor. In fact, while I was reading "A Sign of the Eighties," it wasn't Woody Allen or Mordecai Richler or Philip Roth or any other writer on Jewish themes who came to mind but rather John Irving.

Like Irving, especially in "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire," Parent has created memorable, original, slightly over the top, funny--and ultimately very touching characters.

Take for instance Astra Rainbow Blakely. She's 22, blond, beautiful and a casualty of the hippie era. Her mother sold beads on the street, smoked dope and kept a picture for her daughter of five men not wearing pants, the five men she slept with the summer Astra was conceived. One of them is her father. Astra believes it's the one holding the frying pan in front of him.

When she was 5, Astra pushed an 8-year-old boy off a cliff to his death. Astra has been waiting for retribution ever since. In the sixth grade, she decided to become a nun. As God was slow in showing her a sign, Astra enrolled and graduated from the Ohio School of Business, moved to New York and went to work as a secretary for Mickey Burke.

Mickey Burke, 38, is the enfant terrible of television writers. At one meeting, when the executives tell him his characters need to be nicer and to grow, he becomes so angry he deliberately bangs his head against the door frame, passes out and is rushed to the hospital. The executives send him a huge clown of candy and balloons and a note that reads: "Take your time. Don't worry about the script until you're completely well." Mickey draws the proper inference: "They were a network with many door frames and he had only one head."

Shelley Silver, 35, is the exception. She's brunette, Jewish, smart, has a personal shopper at Bloomingdale's and is successful--she runs a catering business that has really taken off with her Cater-a-Seder concept. Shelley loves Mickey, but every time things are going well, she blows it by asking him to marry her. "She felt the proposal coming from deep within. It was like a sneeze that couldn't be stifled. Soon she would be proposing whether she wanted to or not. She tried holding it in, but there it was, traveling from her brain to her lips. 'If we love each other . . . ' it was too late to stop it . . . 'Why can't we get married?' "

And there is Shelley's friend Greta Weinstein, a successful designer who desperately wants to be married as well and is always cooking up schemes for the two of them to meet men: Apply for pen pals at white-collar prisons; pose as reporters from New York Magazine doing series of articles on the Ten Most Eligible Lawyers, the Ten Most Eligible Plastic Surgeons, etc.; bring good looking men to small claims court--then apologize; rent a Mercedes 560 SL for a day, run an ad to sell it at a real steal. "It's ingenious," said Greta. "For relatively little money, we are going to get to meet at least a dozen guys who at least have enough money to buy an expensive Mercedes. Chances are that some of them will be single. They're going to want to test drive the thing, so either you or I get to spend time with them, bumming around N.Y.C. and getting to know if we think they're a possibility."

To find out how Astra Rainbow shows Mickey and Shelley that both of them can have what they want, rids herself of her terrible guilt, gives up waiting for God to summon her and ends up with a personal psychiatrist and a $400,000 co-op, well, you're going to have to read the book.

And what a good time that's going to be.

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