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The Brat Pack Strikes Back in Esquire

June 22, 1989|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Heads up! For five years, Esquire's July "Summer Reading Issue" has provided beached readers with balmy hours of some of the finest short fiction around. This year, though, there's an unexpected disturbance in the midst of the literary tranquillity.

Between a short story by novelist Tim O'Brien and a sampler of fiction by a bunch of unsung writers, a scuffle breaks out. Suddenly, like a 98-pound weakling recently endowed with muscles, novelist Jay McInerney goes on a vengeful seven-page rampage, gleefully kicking sand in the faces of the critics he accuses of bullying him and his fellow literary Brat Packers.

Situating the 'Revolution in Taste'

It's an amusing scene, well worth the effort of lifting one's head up off the terry cloth.

In "The Writers of Wrong," McInerney sets the scene with a dyspeptic quote from the critic, Leslie Fiedler: "We have been . . . living through a revolution in taste, a radical transformation of the widest American literary audience . . . to one in which adolescents make up the majority. . . ."

The trend being deplored, McInerney later reveals, is not the one led by him and his young cohorts but rather one instigated by an upstart named J. D. Salinger. The review appeared in 1962.

The youthful literati--mainly McInerney, Tama Janowitz of "Slaves of New York" fame and "Less Than Zero" author Bret Easton Ellis--have been victims of "hardened child abusers," McInerney yowls. He calls his critics the "gatekeepers" of the "American Literature Campus," and proceeds to deconstruct them using the very tools of tyranny he attributes to the critical trade.

Vanity Fair's "egregious" James Wolcott, "who can be observed at Manhattan publishing events, hunched in a corner, looking pained and miserable with his self-imported Diet 7-Up," is the master of the ad hominem attack, he writes.

Other critics commit the intentional fallacy by "extrapolating the extraliterary motives of the author . . ." For instance, Terrance Rafferty savaged both Ellis and Janowitz in the New Yorker. But he added: "There were stories in 'Slaves of New York' that showed evidence of a real--if not very rigorously applied--talent."

McInerney lunges. "Do we mean New Yorker stories? Like the very stories that actually appeared in those same thin columns?" he asks, again applying the technique he attacks. "One detects an editorial hand here, a note on the first run galley of an earlier version that didn't contain this passage: 'Didn't we publish her though? Let's discuss.' "

Will Blythe, associate fiction editor at Esquire, says that mail on the McInerney piece already is arriving. Some readers liked it and some hated it, he said. "And some wrote to say that McInerney ought to write criticism instead of fiction."

Savvy Literary Threesome

Picking up on Esquire's lead, apparently, Savvy Woman also offers a sampling of summer fiction in its July issue. The three contributors are the ubiquitous Joyce Carol Oates; Alice McDermott, author of "A Bigamist's Daughter"; and Brenda Peterson, who writes, according to the magazine's own description, "about a fundamentalist Christian who works for the CIA and who has a vision of saving the members of her car pool on Judgment Day."

Poking Fun at Fun-Poker

In its short history, Spy magazine has taken shots at publications of every stripe. Now Vintage books has unleashed a full-blown cover-to-cover counter-attack.

Titled "Sty," the well-produced, one-shot publication is the product of Ed Bresline, editor-in-chief of the paperbacks division at Harper & Row, and Sean Kelly, a National Lampoon veteran.

Satirizing a successful smart aleck is tough, though. And Sty, which assumes a piggish tone from beginning to end, is really more of a tribute than a parody.

The longest effort in the 82-page issue is "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" a profile of "the most celebrated writer-reporter in the history of verbal communication"--Tom Wolfe. Written in the "new journalism" style Wolfe helped usher in 20 years ago, it tells an amusing tale, punctuated with subheadings such as "Ridicule Chic," and "From Farrar Straus to Your Haus."

And the "Lost Littermates" spread, a reference to Spy's regular "Separated at Birth?" feature, shows that Spy may not be too far off the mark in portraying certain people as swinish louts.

Even the ads, for upscale Spy-type products such as "Slobsession" by Calvin Swein and the familiar green "Embarrassing Excess" card, sustain the porcine theme. Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting ads are for magazines that apparently don't rate their own parody: "Wallowing Swine" ("Rolling Stone") for instance, and "Manhattan, oink."

The July Spy, meanwhile, raises the issue of who will succeed William F. Buckley as "America's celebrity Tory," now that Buckley seems to be abdicating by degrees. Written by Bob Mack, a former National Review editorial assistant, the piece charts Buckley's alleged decline and the "scheming and maneuvering" by those on the Right who hope to step in.

A Spy chart assists readers in tracking the aspirants, from Patrick Buchanan to P. J. O'Rourke.

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