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Trendy N.Y. Clotheshorses Come Out of the Closet

June 08, 1989|ELAINE KENDALL

Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch (William Morrow: $16.95; 288 pages)

Although the editors of this section make a heroic effort to match reviewers to books, sometimes they have to settle for less than perfection. Where do you find a critic in sympathy with idea that "people would be a lot happier if they talked to their clothes more often"--one who could also appreciate the style of a novelist who uses the word frock an average of five times per page?

Given these impossible parameters, you might just draw straws. "Fabulous Nobodies" is a genuine rarity, a novel that is totally reviewer-proof. Those who might want it simply don't exist in the same space-time continuum with those who might be obliged to discuss it.

Meant to satirize the terminally trendy denizens of the Lower East Side nightclub circuit, the book merely reproduces the numbing banality of their existence. While waiting for the clubs to open, Reality Nirvana Tuttle and her cohort lie around deciding what to be that night, a complex choice that involves not only the outfit itself but an entire personality and often a gender. The possibilities provide the dialogue. "Vamp, tramp, flapper, sleaze, mod, postmod, Pop Art, disco, retro, rococo, go-go, gypsy, new wave, new romantic, New Look, Carnaby Street, Cossack, Bonnie and Clyde, directoire, debutante, existentialist, belle epoque, buffalo girl, baby doll, Barbarella, punk, postpunk, Pre-Raphaelite, even preppy if I want to, which is almost never."

No Time for Food, Work or Sex

The selection process as practiced here leaves virtually no time for food, work or even sex. Phoebe Johnson, Reality's best friend, has turned herself into a clone of Audrey Hepburn, circa 1958, right down to the clavicle, but she's exceptional. No one else has made that sort of commitment. If you were going to take this concoction seriously, you might say it's about a young woman's search for identity, but that's like deconstructing the message in a fortune cookie. The insights here exist on the same philosophical plane. "The nature of Fame--a great door, but an empty room."

Unlike the recent spate of downtown novels celebrating depravity of all sorts, the paper cutouts in "Fabulous Nobodies" are almost as wholesome as Bobbsey twins, if you can only imagine Freddie as a transvestite. The narrator, Reality (her mother was a hippie) not only talks to her clothes but to her pajama bag, her wigs, shoes, underwear, eyelashes, and yes, even to her press-on nails, though only the "frocks" have movie stars' names.

Totally Fulfilled Person

When we first meet her, she's still employed at a nightclub as the door guard, where her job is to decide who looks "fab" enough to be admitted. Though at this moment, she's a totally fulfilled person "in total harmony with the contents of my closet," she longs to appear in the fashion column written by Hugo a Go-Go, the star journalist of a throwaway called Frenzee, avidly read by 180,000 fabulous somebodies who were nobodies until Hugo mentioned them.

On duty at the club one night, Reality brusquely turns away a middle-aged woman in a navy cardigan who turns out to be the real Jackie O. She is immediately sacked, but fortunately she can spend her waking hours with Freddie, an adorable transvestite with a sound head for business. They establish a partnership and convert their rooms into a rival club.

This is easier than it sounds, because these clubs require little in the way of decoration, facilities, staff, permits or rent, none of which becomes an issue. Reality and Freddie grab a red vinyl sofa out from under two derelicts in Tompkins Square park, print up some matchbooks, and that's it. Hugo covers the thrilling event for his journal, and our heroine not only gets her mention, but the epicene mentioner himself.

Everyone says "frock" for dress and "crimplene" for polyester because the author is Australian, though Reality Nirvana, Freddie, Hugo, Phoebe and the clothes are American. Previously employed at Harper's Bazaar, Australia, and as fashion and beauty editor of Vogue, Australia, Tulloch has obviously paid her professional dues. It's our turn now.

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