For every back, a knife

Truth merges with fiction in a new roman

Published February 2, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There is a long and illustrious tradition of journalism novels, stories set in and around magazines and newspapers, and small wonder. Many writers of fiction have done time as journalists, often vowing to skewer the whole sorry racket once they get out of there.

It is a genre that includes Balzac's "Lost Illusions" and Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," one characterized by sardonic humor and a kind of world-weary point of view. These books are often freshman efforts; both William Kennedy's "The Ink Truck" and Hunter Thompson's "Rum Diaries" were resurrected after the authors' fame was secured with other writing. They are often romans ` clef as well, and part of the reader's enjoyment lies in trying to discern the real-life counterparts of the book's characters. (Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," set in a magazine much like the New Yorker, where the author toiled as a fact-checker, offered stand-ins for William Shawn and William Maxwell; Dawn Powell's "A Time to Be Born" featured a society dame modeled on Clare Booth Luce.)

"Slab Rat," the debut novel of Ted Heller, is true to its school, limning Condi Nast and its flagship publications, with a knowing air (the author worked as a photo editor at Details and Vanity Fair), a nudge and a wink. But anyone planning on connecting the dots between the satire and the satirized may be disappointed. Though some characters bear a marked resemblance to real people (Vogue editor Anna Wintour, CN's late creative director, Alexander Liberman), most are composites. (A fashion crone, for instance, dismissed unceremoniously after years of service to "Versailles Publishing," plays like a cross between former Vogue chief Grace Mirabella and Glamour's late longtime editor, Ruth Whitney.)

Likewise for the magazines parodied within. Zachary Post, the book's narrator, is an associate editor at It, Versaille's magazine of the moment. In content, It is a ringer for VF, though its staff structure sounds suspiciously like Vogue's. And the snobbery and one-upmanship that permeates the book are portrayed as systemic and company-wide.

"It's important at Versailles to not be impressed by anything or anyone," Post confides early on, and such affect is certainly part of Condi Nast's aura. Even in relatively jaded New York publishing circles there is a fascination with the company and its doings that defies logic. Sure, they've got the titles and the perks are legendary (as are the beheadings). The company's new building on Times Square was a figure of much fun in years past. (The fancy Italian filing cabinets, bought en masse, reportedly weren't sized correctly to hold American file folders; those overseeing the building design had forgot to plan for a freight elevator and so on.)

But this was more than garden-variety jealousy. Outsiders seem to dig the very cut-throat ambience they imagine (quite rightly) to exist within its walls. There's something very Roman about all that in-fighting and back-stabbing, and reading about the company's doings can be as entertaining as watching an episode of "I, Claudius." Not for nothing do they call the employees "Condi Nasties."

I spoke to several people who worked with Heller when he was at Details -- or shall I say, were there at the same time he was. Because, fittingly, most don't remember him. He wasn't on the radar because he wasn't big enough to worry about and, in classic "Upstairs, Downstairs" fashion, the help often have the best view of the upper class's failings.

And "Slab Rat" is all about class. Post hails from Massapequa, Long Island; his mother keeps books for Tip Top Togs, his father owns a pool-cleaning business called the Wet Guy. In order to succeed at Versailles he reinvents a risumi that includes education abroad and semi-famous parentage.

With this Gatsby touch of self-creation and class-denial, "Slab Rat" tips its hat to both the "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" school of '50s corporate comedies (in which characters will literally kill to get ahead) and the John Hughes genre of teen-angst comedies. (Townie at elite school sells soul to be with the anointed only to discover that real happiness lies in being who you are.)

Not that "Slab Rat" ends so predictably; there are a few surprises along the way and none of the hokum "revelations" that often mar books of this sort. (You see, he was acting like an asshole because his mom was dying of cancer!) There are some tiresome clichés (most notably the office romances, in which Post finds himself torn between the pure and unsullied intern and the haughty and hyphenated Brit comer) but plenty of dead-on observations about the sorry enterprise of magazine publishing.

"It isn't the first book I've reviewed that I didn't finish," confesses the narrator at one point, "and if you think every book reviewer reads every single word, then you can skip to the last paragraph of this one right now." And Heller's description of a cover-line meeting ("It seems the worse the cover line, the longer it takes to concoct") is almost as painful as the real thing.

In one true-to-life incident, Post is excoriated for having panned a book everyone else loved. As punishment he is sent to interview the truculent, Cormac McCarthy-like author in North Dakota. (Q: "Is there a constant theme running throughout your work?" A: "Life is tough, and don't step in the cowshit.") Upon his return to New York he learns that the writer's famous weathered visage is digitally enhanced to make it craggier, more real.

There is a bit of sophomoric breast-beating of the vanity-vanity sort toward the end, with Post occasionally stopping to ask himself why he is such a craven bastard. But like the old Steve Martin routine in which the comedian played an inquisitor doubting the wisdom of, say, putting people on the rack, Post always snaps out of it. ("Nah!")

"So why am I in this Eye Candy trade?" he asks rhetorically after the end of one such tirade. "Because it impresses the piss out of people when you tell them where you work."

Like most Condi Nast survivors, Heller went on to another magazine. (You don't get this kind of dirt from lifers; they're afraid of messing up their good thing.) He works now at Nickelodeon magazine, where cover subjects, instead of Leo or Jennifer, are Cat Dog or Sponge Bob Square Pants. It must be calming after all that treachery -- though the author seems to have kept the taste of it fresh.

"There's schadenfreude (damage-joy) when you're happy that someone else is doing badly," Post writes, considering the rise of his adversary, "but is there a German word (success-grief, triumph-misery) for when you've been made utterly wretched by someone else's success?" That could be the book's epitaph and while not on a par with Martin Amis' "The Information" (a tale of literary jealousy gone mad), "Slab Rat" is delicious served cold.

Of course, the author's rise (the book is to be published next week but is already the talk of magazine circles) brings him full-circle, sort of. As Celia McGee noted in the New York Daily News last week, Vanity Fair has photographed Heller, and the New Yorker (now ensconced in the Condi Nast building) is running something about him as well. In the '80s, of course, Spy magazine was the company's chief tormentor, mocking the comings and goings of Anna and Tina like the Marx Brothers at the opera. Now many of its alumni work for CN (most notably Vanity Fair editor in chief and former Spy-master Graydon Carter). It won't be long before other Condé Nast editors will be phoning Heller up, saying, "Darling, let's do lunch." And he probably will.

As Post notes, "A rat's got to do what a rat's got to do."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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