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A bad boy turns warm and cuddly

October 02, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — IF there is a modern-day equivalent of the Hollywood blacklist in the New York literary world, novelist Dale Peck believes he is at the top of it. After publishing a series of long and fiercely critical book reviews, mostly in the New Republic magazine, he became one of the most reviled critics on the literary scene, a brawler in a culture that has steadily grown more corporate and polite.

Peck has no use for sacred cows. He has attacked literary-world insiders such as Rick Moody, whom Peck famously called "the worst writer of his generation"; he has ridiculed politically correct "genre fiction" aimed at blacks and gays.

After Terry McMillan's publishers referred to the "breathless" style of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," Peck called it "the most lazily written book I've ever read," adding, "It is, in fact, very hard to believe that any part of Stella was actually written. I imagine McMillan dictating it into a micro cassette recorder while doing her daily two miles on her personal treadmill (hence the breathless comment)."

Now, after all the intemperate words, the angry critic is repositioning himself as, of all things, a young adult author. After announcing last year that he is through writing negative reviews, he has a newly published novel called "Drift House," the fantasy tale of three children who leave New York City after the 9/11 attacks and have magical adventures at sea. It is not, as might be expected, a dark or "edgy" work; rather, Peck has written a kind of homage to the C.S. Lewis "Narnia" books he loved as a child.

The manuscript was sent out under a pseudonym by Peck's agent, Richard Abate of International Creative Management. Knowing that he had become persona non grata in publishing suites across Manhattan, Peck was braced for rejection, he said. But just the opposite occurred; publishers embraced the book, and it was bought by Bloomsbury USA. The children's TV network Nickelodeon soon followed, buying the rights for a possible movie.

Before this turn of events, Peck had found himself at an increasingly unpleasant crossroads. While he was a hot topic at literary parties, with a notoriety unusual for someone whose novels were not bestsellers and whose reviews appeared in a magazine with 60,000 subscribers, the verbal confrontations had drifted off the page and into real life. He met with hostility when he appeared at panels or readings. Indeed, Peck may be said to have singlehandedly rekindled the tradition of the literary dust-up. Angered by a scathing critique of his novel, "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome," author Stanley Crouch confronted the critic in a Greenwich Village bistro and slugged him in the face.

"I am the bad boy of publishing," Peck said wryly as he reflected on this period on a recent morning, shifting restlessly in a chair at the dining room table of his small, sparsely furnished East Village walk-up. "I am the reviled book reviewer. I am the failed novelist taking vengeance out on his betters."

So now comes a whole new set of questions: Will "Drift House" connect with young readers? Is Hollywood an answer or more trouble? And can Peck, who was once hailed as one of the most promising young writers of his generation, resume his career as a writer of adult fiction under his real name? Will a hostile book world allow him to move on?

Relishing the brouhaha

AT first glance Peck doesn't look like much of a giant-killer. A trim, fit, balding man, he seemed younger than his 38 years as he apologized repeatedly for the roar of a construction crew tearing up the streets and sidewalks underneath his window.

"It's New York. It's terribly noisy," he sighed. "What are you gonna do?"

In Peck's case, a little extra noise has never been much of a deterrent. As the shouting match over his literary criticism became deafening, Peck seemed to enjoy, even invite, the brouhaha. The low point came in fall 2003, when he agreed to participate in a New York Times magazine profile, holding a hatchet in the photo. It was a joke, he later said, a reference to his new collection of reviews, which he had cheekily titled "Hatchet Jobs." But the profile treated him dismissively, asking caustically, "Has he earned the rights to his lordly thumbs down?"

Yet thick as his skin may be, Peck looked visibly relieved as he told the story of "Drift House" and its path to publication. "Everybody loved it, and the novel was bought at auction in four days," he said. His name is back on the book. The pseudonym, he said, "was the only way to get my work out there initially, because at that point my real name was mud in book circles."

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