ZOE by Dirk Wittenborn


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Wittenborn, author of a forgettable art-world novel (Eclipse, 1977), now turns to N.Y.'s fashion world--with the glossy, brisk, but essentially stale story of a rags-to-riches model and the two men in her life. The novel's first 100 pages are best, as we meet 17-year-old Mary Ellen Burney in 1972 Yorbalinda, Texas: she's skinny, huge-footed, strange-looking, a puzzlement to her deer-hunting family; and, during a robbery at a wealthy friend's house, Mary Ellen is drawn to the cool, witty burglar--Nicky, a runaway from rich Long Island, a ""pale boy with a ponytail and a pistol tucked in his pants who knew how to speak French. . . ."" Soon this odd couple is sharing confidences and sex. Nicky insists that Mary Ellen is beautiful, even taking a glamorous Polaroid of her and sending it to a top N.Y. model-agency. But then Nicky gets shot (and arrested) while trying to prevent a mid-robbery rape--and winds up having to choose between the Army and jail. So, with Nicky off to Ft. Dix, Mary Ellen--over-encouraged by an interested note from that model-agency--heads for N.Y., where she almost instantly runs into photographer Warren Evans, the novel's on-and-off narrator. Warren is instantly smitten, of course: he becomes Mary Ellen's mentor/Pygmalion--quickly turning the hick into ""Zoë,"" much-in-demand cover girl, with new hair by stylist Hercules. (""She was the blonde God would have come up with if He had created Lady Clairol before He made woman."") Zoë's still devoted to Nicky, however. Furthermore, Warren has been impotent since age 13. And even after Nicky is killed in Vietnam, what Warren and Zoë have is ""warmer than sex,"" though Warren has hopes: ""Zoë was the only woman who had ever given me an erection."" But then, before Warren can continue this progress toward potency, Nicky returns!-having merely faked his own demise. So the old lovers reunite, uneasily; Nicky leaves when Zoë's unable to shake off her new glamour; she goes into a decadent decline (""It seemed so obvious she was fucking to forget""), becomes engaged to a cold movie-director; but finally, thanks to Warren, Nicky returns again, this time carrying Zoë off to some free-spirited life. Some amusingly bitchy fashion-world vignettes, and Mary Ellen (pre-Zoë) has spiky charm--but the men are ciphers, the Zoë transformation is a thin clichÉ, and the novel falls into a stylish but unsatisfying middle-ground: too bland for comic diversion, too brittle for emotional involvement.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Dutton