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BOOK REVIEW : Inside Look at Manhattan's Jurassic Park : CREATURES OF HABIT By Julie Baumgold ; Knopf $22, 294 pages

July 08, 1993|SUSAN REYNOLDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

New Yorkers have always had a fine sense of the impending apocalypse. Events that in any other city would seem par for the urban course--blackouts, large storms, bursting sewer mains--slide easily into metaphors for fire and brimstone.

The center cannot hold . . . there are simply too many contents under pressure. It is, after all, a very small island. Claustrophobia breeds panic, and if you have ever felt panic ripple through a crowd you know what it's like to read this book. Smell something burning? It's the upper class in Manhattan!

"Creatures of Habit" is a novel about the end of an era--the last nails in the coffin of the WASP elite in New York, which has been dying dramatically for several decades, their unpainted fingernails clutching certain institutions: the toniest private schools, one or two societies and clubs (Daughters of the American Revolution, Knickerbocker, the Metropolitan Club), and a summer outpost or two.

It's hard to work up a nostalgia over this passage, and the characters who try to imitate, Ralph Lauren-style, the trappings of that era end up looking a little foolish.

Author Julie Baumgold's protagonist is a society columnist--the Pimpernel--and while she claims vociferously to have grown up in the very arenas she writes about, the New England qualities of restraint, frugality, understatedness and dread of the limelight are nowhere in evidence. Indeed, this is a book more about the habits than the creatures themselves, with all their inner plainnesses and eccentricities. Perhaps the habits are more amusing to read about, generations later, and the Pimpernel has acquired enough of the social skills to get her into every fund-raiser all across town so that she can observe them.

When we meet Libby (the Pimpernel) she is a little tired of her job, chronicling the last days of the Raj. "I know that we are living in the last days, that it's all ending, and that we, their scribes, are also becoming extinct . . . ."

I want to say, "Don't hold your breath," but follow her instead into society's Jurassic Park, an amusement park/gene pool where the cloning runs amok and the word "values" is raised feebly every 50 pages or so by some nerd who was probably not properly invited and is bitter because everyone else is having a good time.

We follow the Pimpernel from party to party to funeral to fund-raiser to ladies' lunch. We see the same people, some adultery, some divorce, some embezzlement. Each time, the "community" closes neatly around the fresh scar, the ones who behaved badly. They are exiled for a period of time and then allowed to return.

A romance emerges from this sewer, between a handsome ex-actor turned clothing magnate, Danny Gates (Ralph Lauren through and through), and an ex-hippie turned terminal mistress to the very rich, Veronica, who is married to the rich but boring Jack Kahn.

Behind them on stage is the rumbling and cracking of the social structure and the central metaphor, a broken sewer main that forms a gaping hole in the middle of the neighborhood.

The decay is interesting, the places, if you grew up there, fun to guess, but there is just nothing to like about the creatures, who make you want to retch with their "Master of the Universe" attitudes, their uninteresting tastes, and last, but not least, the way they treat their children and the people they love/own/buy.

Maybe you'll end up liking the Pimpernel, who is, after all, just doing her job and who is just about the only working woman in the book. She seems to do this dreadful job quite professionally, rising above the fray (which brings her to the ground level of consciousness, but still). There is a very good scene, the first really interesting scene when, at a luncheon someone accuses Libby and some of her friends of "all sticking together."

" 'Who all sticks together?' I said, loudly.

" 'I didn't mean . . . ,' said Nancy.

" 'Yes, you did. I, and every other Jew here, knows exactly what you meant.'

" 'Always very emotional,' someone whispered. 'Known for scenes.' "

This is the first really naked interchange in the book, but it is swallowed up in money and appearance. A few pages later the Pimpernel muses to herself, "Why should I have been surprised? If I had learned anything by now, it was that hiding inside these most ordinary lives, ruled by routine and enslaved to habit, were people ready for murder, suicide, daring rescues and escapes . . . ."

And so the novel is true to its subject, two parts ordinary, one part impending apocalypse. But by the end, the author assumes a little too much familiarity with the subject, and a lot more concern than we actually have for the creatures and their sinking ship.

The inside jokes, the snide asides multiply; the Pimpernel's mind wanders off at various events into thoughts about how connected we all are, the chief flown in from the rain forest, the feminist academic, the society mavens. But the truth is, we're not at all connected, and letting this Titanic sink will not haunt our dreams, especially out here where they're safe.

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