We gave it a C-
In fiction at least, the past ten years have been pretty rough on Manhattan. From Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, literary fortunes have been made describing the vileness of New Yorkers. By this time, any other American city would have dispatched chamber of commerce-sponsored hit men to rub out smart-aleck novelists before they could finish redecorating their apartments. But so long as New Yorkers’ sense of importance is respected, no slander offends them. Not satisfied with being merely bad, they aspire to be the absolute worst.
Hence the celebrity of Tama Janowitz, yet another author grown famous for doing the dozens on New York-principally in her satirical 1986 collection of stories, Slaves of New York. Janowitz has a gift for mocking fraudulence and sexual play-acting. Like her earlier books, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group lampoons art phonies, fashion fads, men who pretend to be women, women who masquerade as men, and so forth. ”He was one of those men,” sniffs protagonist Pamela Trowell (herself disguised as a man at the time), ”who deliberately acts very fey and effeminate as a means of proving that a straight man need not act macho; women flocked to him, assuring one another that he was indeed heterosexual. But the entire act was really a cover-up for the fact that underneath he was gay. It didn’t make much sense, but there you had it.”
At her best Janowitz can be funny. The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group is full of individual scenes and lines that would make good material for a stand-up act: leg-humping dogs, a woman trapped in a bathroom so regally appointed that she can’t find the toilet paper. The protagonist’s revulsion against the city’s hawking, micturating, defecating, eructating mob, and her horror at breathing ”recycled, overheated air simply transferred from one pair of lungs to the next” is downright Swiftian.
But shtick, alas, can carry a novel only so far. Janowitz may share Swift’s revulsions, but the resemblance ends there. When it comes to character and plot, the novel fails badly and at great length. Essentially, it’s the story of a woman so starved for affection she’ll have lunch with a man who exposed himself on their first date. Fired from her job as ad director at a guns ‘n’ ammo magazine called Hunter’s World, Pamela embarks upon a misbegotten trip to Maine with a street urchin she wants to adopt.
Outside Manhattan, the novel’s manic energy fades. The ostensible purpose of the trip is to determine whether or not Pamela’s estranged father—a gynecologist who solves fertility problems by surreptitiously impregnating patients with his own semen—is in fact dead. Accompanied by a distinctly unfunny subplot about a human head found in a trash bag on the highway, and a running gag about genital poison ivy, Pamela mucks about in the country before returning to New York dressed as a man, only to be—surprise!—lionized by the very people who’d scorned her before. And the punch line is—get this—she’s crazy! Maybe it’s time for New York to seek a moratorium on this stuff; a satirical cease-fire might do us all some good.