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The Night of Tama Janowitz : Manhattan Writer Takes a Whirl at L.A. Club Scene

June 22, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

It's 11:30 p.m. on a Friday in June. Downtown Los Angeles, as usual, looks deserted.

But not everywhere.

Near the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Grand Avenue, a throng of miniskirted young women, their hair artfully spiked, gelled and moussed, and jeans-clad young men are half-walking, half-running toward the entrance to the club Vertigo.

Protected by steel chains and velvet ropes, a man in mirrored Ray-Bans is trying to keep the pack at bay. A gorgeous blond woman in her 20s whimpers to her friend: "All I want to do, all I want to do , is get in."

On this particular night, some arrivals are allowed in right away. Suddenly, one of the favored few offers to take someone from the crowd inside. There is a moment of surprise, followed by a frenzy of pushing and shoving. But the gesture of kindness is rebuffed by the man in sunglasses. "You can't feel sorry for them," he growls.

It could be a scene straight out of a Tama Janowitz short story.

Publisher's Party

In fact, Janowitz is what this night is all about. The 30-year-old Manhattan writer, who burst onto the literary scene last year with the publication of her short-story collection, "Slaves of New York," is the guest of honor at a party being thrown by her paperback publisher in the unlikely setting of Vertigo's second-floor balcony.

Almost any other scribe would feel out of place at a book-signing here. But clubs are the stuff of her art. By deftly chronicling New York's downtown night life and the muddled masses who populate it, Janowitz has become Manhattan's Mam'selle of the Moment and a charter member of a new wave of young writers such as Jay McInerney, David Leavitt and Kathy Acker who are redefining the New York literary circle of the '80s.

This new breed of writers not only writes about a hip life style but lives it. So, in "Slaves of New York," Janowitz drew her cast of characters from the young people in their 20s and 30s she would meet at parties in SoHo lofts, on the sidewalks outside nightclubs like Nell's, Area and the Palladium and at screenings for zombie movies.

She put them in the same tragicomic circumstances that she and her friends sometimes experienced and often observed: the Jewish-American Princess prostitute who lives with a Ph.D.-educated pimp, the undiscovered artist who draws Bullwinkle alongside Byzantine figures, the out-of-work musician who likes to take strange girls shopping at Tiffany's.

And she defined the parameters of her trendy turf with precision down to each artichoke-chocolate- chip ice cream cone, Godzilla lighter and Crazy Eddie T-shirt.

So "Slaves of New York" became the first collection of short stories since Philip Roth's "Goodbye Columbus" to hit best-seller lists.

"I think the New York downtown night-life scene was receiving a lot of attention, and people wanted to look into the closets of the characters that made it," she explains. "So I wrote about what it's like to be this particular age in this particular world, which, granted, is a very isolated and small part of New York City. But it seemed that people all over were going through the same kinds of things.

"Like, I got a letter from an Iowa woman who said: 'I read your book, and that happened to me too.' And I'm thinking, you're in Sioux City and you couldn't figure out the man you're dating was a homosexual? So it's not just happening in New York City."

At the Vertigo party, it is now 1 a.m.. A woman clad in black head-to-toe from her ebony Wayfarers to her black Reeboks approaches Janowitz and gushes how "Slaves of New York" was written "about all my friends."

Janowitz smiles. "I wish I could tell you I know them, but I don't," the writer replies.

Surveying the scene from her vantage point atop the bar, occupying herself by dramatically chain-smoking cigarettes and swilling Coronas, Janowitz lets it drop that "I hardly know anyone on the West Coast."

In fact, the only people she knew to invite to this party were a few struggling L.A. actors who used to be neighbors and "a sort of older relative."

Still, dressed in a silver sequin dress, a faded jeans jacket, white stockings, gold brocade shoes, teased hair and a neon-lit slave bracelet, Janowitz is the sort of woman who attracts stares from strangers. "But, you know," she confides, "the only women who really have it made in L.A. are 20-year-old blondes who have big bosoms and fathers who are famous movie directors."

Kiss on the Kneecap

With that, a stunningly beautiful man comes up, kisses her on the kneecap and moves on.

Does she know him?

"No," she shrugs.

The mystery man turns out to be Mario Oliver, one of Vertigo's owners and the current beau of Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

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