A book's life is not an easy one. Look at the competition for our time and money: You can spend eight hours and $15 on a new novel, or you can get the story in two hours at one-third the price if it's made into a movie. If it goes to miniseries, it's essentially free, and if it's on TV, you can do something else while you watch--knit, cook, write letters, there are all sorts of polyphasic possibilities.
How to keep the audience faithful? This month's authors have the answer--give readers something they can't get any place else. The current candidates for best-seller status go where movies, with the specter of X-ratings, and television, with their standards-and-practices departments, fear to tread. I will be as euphemistic as possible, but children under 17 should not read this column unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Read Riverside Drive by Laura Van Wormer, and you'll never watch the TV evening news with such indifference again. Behind the scenes, anchorwoman Alexandra Waring is having a torrid affair with competing station manager Cassy Cochran, while Cochran's soused husband strings together several lost weekends in a row. The Cochrans live on the eponymous westside Manhattan boulevard, and they, and a half-dozen other households, are serviced by the sainted cleaning woman Roseanne deSantos, who provides the continuity between lives which otherwise might never intersect. Howard Stewart is a book editor married to the viperous Melissa; Amanda is a zaftig would-be writer and sexual volcano; Sam and Harriett Wyatt represent the black upper-middle class; Emma Goldblum is the frail old lady with the grasping son.
For the most part, "Riverside Drive" is full of standard-issue infidelities, work problems, and mid-life crises. But whenever Van Wormer senses that she might be losing her readers, who can see miniseries written all over this book--Pow!--she hits them with a sex scene they'll never get to see on a screen, like the first steamy encounter between Cassy and Alexandra, which is hot enough to melt the print off the page. Van Wormer's bio says that she worked in publishing for years. Is this what they teach them in New York, in between the snide jokes about the West Coast's deplorable lack of aesthetic standards?
If you're not so easily bowled over, there's A Glimpse of Stocking by Elizabeth Gage (a pseudonym), which features a woman who makes her living as a prostitute specializing in domination fantasies. Do I have your attention? And Christine, the dominatrix, isn't even the star of the show. The central character is Annie, the sweet young girl who vows revenge on Harmon Kurth, a powerful producer who prefers to conduct his auditions horizontally. While Annie claws her way to stardom, the murderous Christine--who, of course, has a deep dark secret that links her life to Annie's--maneuvers her way into Annie's life and Kurth's bedroom.
Revenge may be sweet, but it's also over the top of the sexual Richter scale; the Earth moves in pretty astounding ways in this book, many of them illegal, some of them videotaped. It's safe to say the book will never be filmed as written, which only enhances its allure in print.
Dennis Jones' Winter Palace could get by the screen censors with no problem, since they allow politically sanctioned violence a much wider berth than they do sexual skirmishes. Jones has come up with a heart-stopping international thriller, from the "What If" genre: What if the Russians reactivated an almost 40-year-old plan for a massive Jewish emigration, essentially a perverse publicity stunt which would mean death for millions of Jews, while thousands of KGB agents slipped into the United States unnoticed as part of the immigration wave. Stir in a superheated Middle East situation and some Arab nuclear bandits, and you have one very scary story.
Our collective sense of humor has taken a beating since Slim Pickens rode a nuclear warhead to oblivion in "Dr. Strangelove," so Jones comes up with maverick CIA operative Sam Cole, the man of honor who is dragged into this mess against his will. Faced with a ticking nuclear bomb, Sam certainly will be able to revoke our one-way ticket to immortality with one snip of his wire clippers. Won't he?
After all this excitement, Belva Plain's Tapestry is just what the doctor ordered: The third installment of Plain's historical saga about the Werner family. Plain pulls an interesting sex-change--instead of dishing up the stereotypical female Jewish martyr, she makes the self-effacing, self-denying main character a man, Paul Werner, a fellow who always ends up doing the right thing, even if he flirts with the wrong thing for a couple of chapters. In fact, it takes Paul so long to straighten out everyone else's lives that he doesn't get around to his own epiphany until the last pages of the book, by which time we are suitably awed by his heroism and more than a bit impatient with his gallant tendency to put his life on hold. Volume four, anyone?