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An 'American Psycho' Drama : Books: The flap surrounding Bret Easton Ellis' third novel flares again. NOW is seeking a boycott of his new publisher. Other observers raise questions of censorship.

December 11, 1990|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

'Perhaps on instinct, perhaps from memory, she makes a futile dash for the front door, crying out. . . . (E)ffortlessly, I'm leaping in front of her, blocking her escape, knocking her unconscious with four blows to the head from the nail gun. . . . I stretch her arms out, placing her hands flat on thick wooden boards, palms up, and nail three fingers on each hand, at random, to the wood by their tips. . . . After I've sprayed Mace into her eyes, mouth, and into her nostrils, I place a camel-hair coat from Ralph Lauren over her head, which drowns out the screams, sort of. . . ."

So goes the story of Patrick Bateman, a brand-name-sated Wall Street yuppie gone mad in the '80s who tortures, mutilates, rapes, murders, dismembers and even tries to make a meat loaf from the remains of one of his female victims.

Bateman is the hero of "American Psycho," the new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, who rose to national prominence five years ago with "Less Than Zero" and sank from sight with his second novel, "The Rules of Attraction." "American Psycho" has sparked torrid controversy in publishing circles and is now escalating into a national cause celebre, full of the sound and fury of moral outrage.

The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, abruptly canceled the book in mid-November, just a month before its scheduled release, and Ellis kept his $300,000 advance. The novel was then picked up by Vintage Books, a trade paperback division of Random House, which plans to publish the novel by early spring.

The back-to-back bombshells have jarred the industry. Simon & Schuster's highly unusual move has raised questions of censorship from some quarters, and Random House's decision has drawn the ire of women's groups, in part because the book's purchase was ordered by Sonny Mehta, president of Vintage and Alfred A. Knopf, another Random House division, and a cynosure of literary publishing.

Leading the outcry is Tammy Bruce, 28, coordinator of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women. She is proposing a boycott of Random House publications and has started a local telephone hot line that allows callers to hear the "Psycho" excerpt describing Bateman's nail-gun attack.

" 'American Psycho' " is the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across," Bruce tells listeners on the hot-line tape. "The book is . . . in effect, a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women. . . .

"The only way to convey to you the horror of this book is to read to you a passage." The excerpt, she says, comes from a purloined copy of the "Psycho" manuscript edited by Simon & Schuster, though she would not say how she obtained it.

Although NOW will not formalize the boycott until a national meeting scheduled for January in Los Angeles, feminists are rallying behind Bruce in growing numbers. In a letter that is to be mailed this week to Mehta, Random House owner Samuel I. Newhouse Jr., and Alberto Vitale, the company's chief executive, as well as to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, nine women authors, including Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett, express their outrage at the book and support for the boycott. "Sonny Mehta would not have been so quick to buy the spoils of Simon & Schuster if the book's protagonist had dismembered and tortured a black, Jewish or Indian man," the letter reads.

With increasing opposition to "Psycho," the author and the executives of Random House, Knopf and Vintage are not returning telephone calls. "It's too hot to talk about, even off the record," said one representative who was reached.

Meanwhile, the rumor mills have been working at full tilt and bootleg copies of the manuscript, like Bruce's, have been circulating through the literary underground and appearing in national publications.

Time magazine led the parade of gore in late October, allegedly influencing the Simon & Schuster cancellation with a paragraph describing Bateman skinning one of his victims alive. In this month's issue, Spy magazine treats readers to the protagonist performing oral sex with a decapitated head, and imagining Ellis intoning the lines for the literati at a wainscoted bookstore.

In its January issue, Spy will continue to track Patrick Bateman. The editors have submitted an anonymous 2,000-word excerpt from the book to 10 skin magazines, including Hustler and Swank, and to two vanity publishers. Kurt Anderson, a co-editor of Spy, says that one vanity house said it would not take this person's money to publish the book, and all 10 magazines rejected the submission. "It's too violent for our readership. This really isn't eroticism. It's horror fiction with brutal sexuality," the editors of Cavalier magazine wrote in their rejection letter.

Mehta, however, has said this is a novel he supports. "Sonny has a history of liking some pretty bizarre books. That he would like this doesn't surprise me," says a Random House editor who asked not to be identified.

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