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A Love Life in Chapter Eleven : THE BOYFRIEND SCHOOL by Sarah Bird (Doubleday: $16.95; 352 pp.; 0-385-24694-3)

June 25, 1989|Pat Ellis Taylor | Taylor is the author of "Afoot in a Field of Men" (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Austin, Tex., is Mudville in this novel, and there is no joy, for mighty Casey (with mighty Watson and other mighty landlords) has struck out. The downtown streets are haunted with the echoing shells of high-rises, and the names of the street-front businesses are changing faster than theater marquees. But blues, as sung at Antone's, ain't news to the poor, which include the still overly large population of underemployed artists and musicians who came to the city when the scene was hot and remained long after the rent came due.

In "The Boyfriend School," Sarah Bird's second book set in the Texas capital city, her heroine, Gretchen Griner, is one such languishing soul--a spunky photographer for a weekly entertainment magazine called the Austin Grackle where ad revenues are dropping so fast and paychecks are running so late that only those with independent trust funds can afford to work there.

One such is her lover, the chemical-abusing rock music critic and chief editor Peter Overton Treadwell III, nicknamed Trout. Trout is also her villainous boss; tortures her with bad blues lyrics during their love-making sessions ("You ever seed peaches growin' on a sweet 'tater vine?"); stands her up frequently for women with the Glasgow waif look ("hair falling into the eyes and shoes associated with a failure to vaccinate for polio"); and won't pay her for past assignments unless she submits to covering the Luvboree--a conference of romance writers scheduled for Dallas.

This is a terrible degradation for the artiste who has specialized in cultural phenomena: "Rattlesnake buckaroos. Mud Boggers. Skateboard punks. Low-riders. Pit bulls. Prosperity hucksters. I liked to work a tiny bit closer to the edge than romance novels." But there is a death-rattle in her car's engine and her landlord couple, the Cleebs, are plotting eviction, so she succumbs to the assignment.

Once at the elegant Ludgow's Savoyard Inn, "welcoming to the rich, intimidating to the poor, not unlike Dallas," she is befriended by two of the romancers who are also from Austin: first, the unlikely Juanita who chain-smokes True cigarettes, once a police reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, with a penchant for tough-Bogart lines: "My product is wet dreams for dry dames . . ."; and second, the mysterious Viveca Lamoureaux, one of the top romance producers in the country, a dropout academic specializing in English medievalism.

Under the guidance of these two odd fairy godmothers, she is dressed up for the Romance Novelists Ball and initiated into the world of the "dream-spinners" replete with Bloody Marys and talk of high-dollar contracts. And upon her return to Austin Cup-a-Suppers and rent delinquency, she comes to the inevitable decision to write one herself. Her new friends continue to encourage her tenderly budding romantic talents with writing tips and casserole dinners.

Just as the guidelines to the novels they write specify, these women are white. They are Protestant. They are middle-class. Their men are successful in business and computers. But somehow their world nourishes romance much more than the gloomy atmosphere of the Grackle, whose offices have been fashioned from the old hot tub rooms of a bathhouse where the steamy air "brings athlete's foot to mind" and where the rockabillying Trout, even in the midst of discovered infidelity in the old orgy room that is now his office, continues to quote blues lyrics to her, trying to woo her back: "I'm gone change my lowdown ways, baby. . . ."

So as she spins her own fantasy, other men begin to appear in her life: the sweet but uncool Gus with his ticket punched for marriage and computer-based suburban security, and a mysterious midnight motorcycle rider who bears an uncanny resemblance to the tall, dark and handsome hero Manx she is creating nightly on paper from her bad-boy dreams and stashing in her freezer during the day, waiting for the right inspiration to fill in the five-page gaps she has left for the mushy parts.

Sarah Bird is a fearless madcap, showing women at their most clownish--behind their home spa weekend beauty masks. And "The Boyfriend School" is often falling-off-the-chair hilarious, as satirical of heart-of-Texas culture as it is of state-of-the-art WASP romance--with enough good nature to give the reader some happy surprises, including the hopeful message that even after romance in Chapter Eleven, love sometimes survives.

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