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Book Review

Sleazy, Antagonistic Characters Give 'Manhattan' a Nasty Tone

KISSING IN MANHATTAN; by David Schickler; Dial Press; $21.95, 288 pages

November 12, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We've come a long way, it would seem, from the charming subway breezes and innocent trips to the zoo celebrated in the classic Rodgers and Hart song "We'll Have Manhattan." David Schickler's Manhattan is a zoo of a different kind: an upscale, ultra-chic urban jungle full of exotic, or would-be exotic, specimens strutting their stuff. Their shared terrain is a stately, expensive and venerable apartment building on the Upper West Side called the Preemption, where many of them happen to live.

"Kissing in Manhattan" is a kind of literary hybrid: part novel, part story collection. It is made up of 11 linked stories and the links among them become increasingly clear as the central plot gathers steam and the lives of various characters are shown to intersect in unexpected ways. And, speaking of characters, it should be noted that Schickler's are less like a set of dramatis personae than a collection of fetishes. There's the couple whose long and happy marriage may be attributable to their nightly bathing routine; the temptress who enjoys leaving her would-be lovers naked outside the locked door of her flat; the gun-toting millionaire who ties women to his bed and leaves them there untouched; the shy accountant who confides in the building's commodious and reliable elevator as if it were a friend, to name just a few. In this milieu, props are almost as important as people, with the result that items of clothing, furnishing and jewelry; favored restaurants and bars; quirky conversational gambits and other rituals receive a great deal of emphasis.

Thus, in the opening story, we meet Lee and Donna, two women in their 30s who sell real estate. Lee wants Donna to meet a man named Checkers.

Donna's not sure: "Checkers is a name for a dog. Or a henchman," she opines. Schickler further characterizes her by informing us that "Donna wore a suit and important shoes." Readers may detect shades of Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz in Schickler's deliberately casual, almost coy presentation of material designed to be shocking--or at very least, titillating.

"Leonard Bunce wanted one woman, but he planned to use another," one story begins. "Leonard worked in Manhattan, as a lawyer for Spuck and Hardison. The two women were paralegals for the firm. The woman Leonard wanted was Hannah Glorybrook, and the one he planned to use was Alison Shippers."

Although we meet about a dozen characters in the various stories, the core of the book involves a potentially explosive conflict between the gun-toting, woman-collecting millionaire and his shy roommate, who falls for one of the millionaire's women.

"Kissing in Manhattan" is in many ways a polished, if self-consciously clever, performance: stylish, even stylized, occasionally sweet, but with a persistent undertone of nastiness. The nastiness reaches a kind of sinister climax in the last few stories as Thomas, an extraordinarily perceptive priest, gets wind of the potentially explosive conflict. Thomas' perspective on the world around him--the world of these stories--is singularly enlightening and clearly intended as something of an antidote:

"It seemed to Thomas ... that human beings charged around at far too vicious a pace, expecting to be assessed, or used, or summed up very quickly. ...

"Every evening, Thomas came back to the warehouse apartment and collapsed on the couch, his mind frazzled and spent from the input that Manhattan threw at him, the bodies, the walls, the trash, the food. If an object that he stared at seemed peaceful or whole in its nature, like a tree or a watchful baby, then Thomas drew strength from focusing on that object. But more often he felt, through a sort of draining visual empathy, the terrors that gripped Manhattan's denizens. He read haste and greed in graffiti and in the propped-up ceilings of bodegas. At clubs he gazed at women in slick black dresses, wishing he could fall prey to their magic, sensing instead that they had sad, splintered hearts."

But neither Thomas' bracing vision nor the other shafts of sweetness and light interspersed along the way quite manage to alleviate the rather nasty taste these stories leave in the mouth, a taste that is all the more insidious when packaged in such smooth and glossy form.

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