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Pre-Literate in Manhattan : A CANNIBAL IN MANHATTAN by Tama Janowitz (Crown Publishers: $17.95; 287 pp., illustrated)

October 18, 1987|Sonia Pilcer | Pilcer is the author of "Teen Angel," "Maiden Rites" and, most recently, "I-LAND: Manhattan in Monologue" (Ballantine). and

Perhaps you've seen her Amaretto ads. The most visible of a highly publicized group of young writers who have been hailed "the literary brat pack," Tama Janowitz has brand recognition. Her new book has been launched with the breathless hype usually reserved for rock acts.

Despite the off-putting title, I was ready to be entertained by her deadpan humor and offbeat characters.

Unfortunately, Janowitz fails to find a voice for Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, as she did for her downtown "Slave" denizens. "I am nothing more than a savage," says Mgungu. "I don't understand even the simplest theories of electricity." Yet this cannibal does know his American brand names as well as the city's hottest clubs.

One hopes that Mgungu might be given some original observations to chew on. Instead, we are served such whopping platitudes as, "A life in the United States. How was I to know what people said or did is not the same at all as what they mean?"

The book itself features a photo scrapbook straight out of fanzinedom, including Janowitz and friends cavorting as the characters, complete with makeup and hair-stylist credits. I guess the hottest shot is of a wizened Andy Warhol, portraying "Cannibal" museum curator Parker Janius. Throughout, the pages are peppered with drawings of skulls and other exotica. Ballpoint through his nose, Mgungu is a savage dressed up with nowhere to go but the cover of Time magazine. After all, cannibals should get their 15 minutes of fame too. The other characters are blatant stereotypes including heiress Maria Fishburn, played by Interview's Paige Powell, rock star Kent Gable, Parker Junius, pizza parlor Joe and a few others who listlessly manipulate poor Mgungu.

It could even be said that Mgungu's naive tone reflects his creator, who told Paper, a downtown magazine, "It was really just me trying to be this man. To me society is a big con. I never quite figured out the skills to get along in society."

Finally, what we have is a portrait of greed: a publisher who will package a best-selling author's juvenilia and a promising writer who doesn't know the difference. Could Mgungu be an allegory for Janowitz's cynical exposure in American media?

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