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Attack of the Anti-Heroes : It's high time for Bret Easton "Wunderkind" Ellis to surprise us, try something new. : THE INFORMERS, By Bret Easton Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 226 pp.)

August 21, 1994|Neal Karlen | Neal Karlen is the author of "Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band," to be published this month by Times Books

Joe McGinniss' gravest crime against literature was not "The Last Brother," the author's recent and ridiculous faux-biography of Ted Kennedy. Rather, McGinniss' worst felony was rushing Bret Easton Ellis, his fiction-writing student at Bennington College, to publish "Less Than Zero" at age 21.

Ironically, the 1985 first novel was an excellent beginning for an obviously talented writer; "Less Than Zero" provided a provocative snapshot of a time when the anomic ditherings of idle, rich, drug-addled, white-bread Los Angeles young adults was considered fresh material. Bearing a canny journalist's eye for detail and dialogue, Ellis' storytelling already carried the complete lack of sentiment and empathy of a seasoned nihilistic novelist.

Ellis became a famous, best-selling young writer and was touted as the voice of a generation. But like a rookie phenom pitcher without a second pitch, Ellis immediately ran out of what ballplayers call stuff .

Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer earned their material and early anomie through actual life experience; both had been to war by the time they were famous writers in their early 20s. Bret Easton Ellis, however, had only been, apparently, to Bennington. Walled in by his own youth and too early fame from any adult life experience, he refused to learn any new pitch beyond the Reagan-era ditherings of idle, rich, drug addled young Los Angeles adults.

Sadly and predictably, during the years Ellis should have been apprenticing his skills and honing his chops, he wrote the same novel over, calling the 1987 volume "The Rules of Attraction." This time, however, the insights were rarer, the humor almost absent, the prose as flat as a day-old latke . His characters, meantime, had degenerated into half-dimensional Barbie and Ken dolls.

Ellis was writing worse and acting stupid. In time, his Manhattan nightclub shenanigans, constantly and mockingly detailed by Spy magazine, provided a much more tragic story than anything he was typing.

By the time "American Psycho," his last novel, was published in 1991, Ellis was largely a joke among the young cognoscenti who'd once made him famous. That book, filled with the excruciating, affectless murderings of a serial killer, became a cause celebre when it was boycotted by feminists as misogynistic pornography. The book was indeed a horror; by now Ellis had seemed to give up even the pretense of writing, and was content to simply transcribe lists of tony clothing manufacturers from the back pages of GQ.

Sadly, the publication of "The Informers," Ellis' newest book, is not a case of a literary comeback of a written-off one-hit wonder, but a further slide down for an author who long ago had it. Ostensibly a novel, the book is a plotless collage of short stories alternately narrated by a rogues' gallery of human monsters whose characters are developed with technical dexterity.

There is, for example, the club-hopping vampire who drains his bimbo pickups' blood dry; the dazed-on-downers studio wife who sleeps with her kids' friends; the rock star who makes underage prostitutes eat Kleenex; the young man who unashamedly rifles his just-dead friend's pockets for salvageable marijuana seconds after a hideous car accident. For a point, one must turn to the novel's publicity write-up, where we learn that the characters are "all suffering, whether they admit it or not, from no disease other than the death of the soul."

Unfortunately, Ellis' publicist is a more interesting writer than Ellis, whose anti-heroes swim in swamps duller than bongwater. His notorious sex passages are often detailed with the kind of plodding, leering, badly described scenes published in Penthouse Forum: "The girl is pretty, blond, dark tan, large wide blue eyes, Californian, a T-shirt with my name on it, faded tight cutoff jeans. Her lips are red, shiny, and she puts the magazine down as I slowly move toward her, almost tripping over a used dildo that Roger calls the Enabler."

When Ellis isn't writing about brutal sex or casual murder--which isn't often--his scenes can sound like the product of an introductory fiction-writing workshop where students are told to record exactly a banal, everyday scene. "The Librium I took at dawn has worn off and my mouth feels thick and dry and I am thirsty," Ellis writes. "I get up, slowly, and walk into the bathroom and as I turn on the faucet I look into the mirror for a long time until I am forced to notice the new lines beginning around the eyes. I avert my gaze and concentrate on the cold water rushing out of the faucet and filling the cup my hands have made."

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