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Even metaphorical whimsies need to be convincing on their own fanciful terms--and this first novel from the author of Stories Up to a Point (1982), though often stylish in its urban/literary/domestic vignettes, never gives its iffy central premise either the authority of realism or the power of fantasy. Pesetsky's narrator is May Alto, twice-divorced mother of three, a ghost-writer of unprecedented talent, output, and nerve: she has produced scores of books, it seems, on a vast number of difficult subjects; past-haunted, she has inserted characters from her family history (her leftwing mother Sonya, her Aunt Giselle and Uncle Trasker) into each and every text--a so-so running gag; and now that one of her clients, Dr. T. E. Quayle, has won the Nobel Prize (supposedly on the basis of two slim books actually written by May, she has decided to blackmail him. Unfortunately, however, this engaging short-story notion becomes increasingly irritating as Pesetsky stretches it out to short-novel length--especially since the specifics of the Nobel-winning books are left unpersuasively vague. (The few references suggest, disastrously, a cross between Carlos Castaneda and Dr. Wayne Dyer.) There's even, in fact, the sneaking feeling--perhaps an intentional effect, but a murky one in any case--that May's whole narrative is a delusion. So, as May begins her blackmail crime, suffering a series of severe physical ailments along the way (""I am alluding to the possibility of psychosomatic disorders, a body filling with guilt""), one follows her only half-heartedly. And the premise runs out of steam entirely in the novel's later, desperately churned-up chapters: May visits a therapist (a bland cartoon) to shake her guilt; she sleeps with Quayle but keeps demanding major cash; she attends a Quayle lecture; and Quayle threatens to kill her. . . as Pesetsky flirts more vigorously with the fantastical (is May a ghostwriter for Salinger and Malamud too?) and the metaphorical (a pretentious, copout closing). The talents on display in Stories Up to a Point--wry mother/kid dialogue, a feel for middle-aged urban irony, a clipped/hip style--pop up throughout May's crisis. The themes--especially that of female-writer subservience and frustration--snake through provocatively. But, by trying to have it both ways, with a shifty mix of realism and pipe-dream, Pesetsky fails to provide steady involvement on either level.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1983
Publisher: Knopf