Make Believe Ballrooms. By Peter J. Smith (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 292 pp.).
What a surpassingly strange genre this is, these unpleasant little narratives of wasted East Coast youth, that Bret Easton Ellis--in a quote that goes far beyond a blurb and into the realms of pontification--labels "comedy of irritation."
Ellis is right about one thing: "Make Believe Ballrooms" is supremely irritating. I can't state that strongly enough. "Make Believe Ballrooms" is so irritating that you don't get a chance to notice the plot is nonexistent (but the author is very talented), until after you've calmed down.
This novel is a hymn of hatred to the whole human race, and Peter J. Smith succeeds--like a bratty little kid, bonking, bonking on one note of the piano, until the rest of the assembled company rise up as one and shout, "ENOUGH! Get some of your toys and go play outside for awhile. We can't take it anymore!"
The point is: The author has set out to write a fatuous, plotless, stupid little novel; he succeeded admirably. Bret Ellis likes it. His publishers must have liked it. His editor liked it so much that he let his author get away with egregious technical errors like letting the groom walk down the aisle at a wedding, or racist inaccuracies like calling three Iranians "Moishe" (thus managing to be both anti-Iranian and anti-Semitic at the same time), calling a 10-year-old sheep a "lamb," and I don't know what all.
And, yes, the subheading under the above-mentioned "point" is, of course, this is a parochial review, from the West Coast, and all that. On the other hand, "Make Believe Ballrooms" is nothing if not a parochial novel, taking the position that New York City, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Miss Porter's School make up the world. OK. No problem. Maybe they make up the world, and maybe the author, publisher and editor are correct in that assumption. My parochial answer to that would be: That still doesn't make a 10-year-old sheep a lamb.
The plot: Hal has a brother, Beck, who is marrying the most-awful nouveau riche woman in the world, "Little Lisa Lyman." Hal has a sister, Fishie, who is such a competitive swimmer that she shaves her head. Hal, Beck and Fishie drive around in a family car named "Son." "Little Lisa Lyman" has a 7-year-old brother named "Sir," and a grandma named "Sug," for "Shut Up, Grandma." Hal's own nickname is "Children." My, those East Coast folks surely live in the fast lane! And when Hal is rescued from his own anomie and ennui, it's by a girl from Texas, named "Mary Ann Beavers." (I think that name gets accompanied by a readerly sigh and the expostulation, "Ah, Ah! Eternal Youth!") Hal meets Mary Ann and is saved from his awful life. Beck is eventually saved from the dreaded "Little Lisa Lyman. . . ."
'English Major' Rules
In between the beginning and the end, the indeterminate middle-material of the "English major" rules. We get an allusion to Erasmus on page 3, to Percy Bysshe Shelley on page 30, three pages of jejune dopiness on Emily Dickinson starting on page 16, a kind of interesting salute to Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," through S.J. Perleman, on page 23, line 16. Also many little jokes about machismo-mechanics for those who yawned through English: "Radiator," Hal yells, when Son, his car, breaks down. "The diverter value linings redumbrated at once! Use the B-900 Vatka Cloaca screws. And a fulcrum hammerhead so you won't disengage the bindings!" This is Perleman all right, but Perleman at his worst. And it's not just a function of being a young, East Coast, white male with no "adventures" to write from. (Joseph Olshan, for instance, fits that profile, and writes like an angel.) Peter J. Smith, for reasons of his own, has written to irritate, and succeeded. Good luck to him.