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A classic novel of love, sex, and the vagaries of the literary life, as witnessed by a young woman on the verge of success
Dina Reeve is a talented writer with a dry, urban sense of humor and a tendency to worry about sharks in bathtubs. Howard Ritchie is an editor of a literary magazine and a boozing, compulsive womanizer. Newman Sykes is a philandering, acerbic critic. They are among the seducers and the seduced in this witty and elegantly written novel, which follows its richly drawn characters as they move between bed and typewriter.
Praise for Elbowing the Seducer
“The debut of an enormously gifted writer.”—The New York Times
“A juicy slice of life—intelligent, bitingly honest, funny.”—Kansas City Star
“Wonderfully witty and sharp-eyed writing.”—Ms.
“Excellent satire.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Elbowing the Seducer
In his sleep his hands, which were small, curled into fists. In the morning he woke and found them that way. He thought he never dreamed, though some nights, turning beneath the blanket, he cried out strings of words. His wife—or, as he thought of her, the mother of his child—lay beside him, nursing a dim tickle of passion. At the sudden twist of terror on his sleeping face, her eyes startled open, searching the ceiling.
He disliked breakfast, a meal she found comforting. She contented herself with watching him scowl at his coffee, black, no sugar. Scowling made him look as dangerous as he could, which wasn’t very dangerous at all. He looked, and he knew it, reassuring. In his early forties, thin, with fine sharp features and the beginnings of parenthetical lines around his mouth, he had calculating, good-humored brown eyes and an uncombed abundance of curly brown hair whitened at the temples: a professor. But no, his lean body, the spareness of his frame, the nervous abrupt movements he made with his hard slim arms stamped him as someone outside a cloistered life.
His ambition, to leave a large mark on the world—a sign, not a scar—made him move restlessly. He might have been a sculptor. Still, the aura of teacher lingered about him. He was a medium for talent, not a possessor of it. His name was Howard Ritchie and he wanted to make it memorable. Suzanne, his wife, ate toast and bright marmalade on carmine red stoneware from France. She had once been lovely in a sweet tight way. At forty she was battling the softness of middle age, counting on good facial structure and a dazed girlishness to see her through. Between bites she wiped her mouth with a blue cloth napkin—he disapproved of paper ones—and watched her smart husband read the Times, which he did in a certain order: first the book review, then the front page, then the editorial pages, then nothing more since he was already, as usual, late for the work he did to support the two of them, their child, his second ex-wife, and his two ex-children. These last, having grown up mostly without him, followed their mother’s example and hated him. Because he paid for part of their home, food, clothing, doctors, and schools, because he sent them reasonably generous checks on holidays and their birthdays, they hated him; it was as simple as that. In turn he disliked them because they weren’t his any longer, could never again be his.
For his families, he worked at a university as an editor and teacher, jobs he couldn’t finish during the day but continued through the spirited night, which was why he was late in the morning: he didn’t get enough sleep. The perpetual weary edge this gave him attracted certain women. He recognized the effect and exploited it. Courting and chasing after and confessing to these women, he couldn’t finish his work during the day because he was too busy preparing himself for it. He considered his affairs as therapeutic necessities to revitalize him for work, his calling, midwife to literature.
He told the women: Sex is one thing, my family is another; I will never lose my child, I will never allow that to happen. This child, by Suzanne, had an earnestness Howard defined as artistic temperament. Matty was seven and resembled pictures of her father at that age. She had already written two poems about God with no misspellings. She had pinched a statuette of Charlie Chaplin out of clay. It was clearly Charlie Chaplin because of the hat and the cane. Through her Howard worshiped his own hopes; she would make the world bow down. He wanted to keep her brave, he wanted to protect her memory of him.
He spent extended lunch hours in strange bedrooms, lying on, under, and beside the women who found him irresistible. Afternoon sun streaked between the slats of blinds onto parquet floors, decent Oriental rugs, the litter of his clothing around unfamiliar beds. Each time he took one of these women in his arms, he believed he was conquering death in himself. Each time he fell back exhausted in a new bed, he wondered what else he could try. A woman’s long hair, black, brown, whatever, hid his wrist. A woman kissed the light-haired hollow under his arm. He thought, Who is she? What did I want to be when I was sixteen? A woman bit tenderly at his fingertip. He thought the women were as implacable as death. He kissed them, he made them murmur, he made them glad. In their arms he relished his privacy; afterward, lighting a cigarette, he inhaled the old dread. He thought, I’m tired, so tired; and he rubbed the inside corners of his eyes.
He drank much more than he should have, quantities of good Scotch that lifted him to an amber forgetfulness. He became so happy he wept. Once, after six toasts, his own, he passed out in the middle of an important dinner party, also his own, at a restaurant specializing in painless lobster killing. The guests—a sexually ambiguous novelist in rawhide; his underfed groupie deseptumized by cocaine and the sere air of vicarious success; an agent, appropriately walleyed, rumored to have been the lover of a daughter of a lover of Simone de Beauvoir, or was it Colette; another agent, a sober exquisite woman joined at either hip to the two preceding guests, having been wedged between them like an extra book on an already organized shelf; and a literary critic with severe taste and cheekbones, whose new weekly spot on a local TV news show was the reason for the celebration—all observed his right arm sinking into spinach quiche. The critic said, “Unoriginal, but not without style.” The novelist challenged the critic to an arm-wrestling contest, the groupie and the exquisite agent went off to the bathroom to admire each other’s breasts, and the remaining agent contemplated both the fallen editor and the dessert tray while sucking a prime rib. A waiter asked if there was anything he could do. The critic, having declined to arm wrestle, hauled Howard through fresh snow to the dank backseat of a Checker cab and brought him home.
Another time, after eight whiskies and six pretzel rods on an April afternoon, he returned to his office and worked on galleys with shivering concentration for fifteen eternal minutes before asking his secretary, Gail, to please turn on the heat, please. “It’s on, Howard,” she said. While two writers and an illustrator waited in the reception area down the hall, he counted seconds on his watch and tried to find his pulse. This took a long time. Finally, one of the writers, who had driven in from Massachusetts two days earlier to begin a new life in the city, knocked on the door, waited a polite beat, then went in. He saw Howard Ritchie, editor, lecturer, author of helpful goading rejection letters, clutching his neck and muttering to himself.
“You okay?” the writer asked.”
“There’s no pulse anywhere.” This in muted panic.
The writer had delivered his former lover’s setter bitch of six puppies. He didn’t hesitate to place two fingers on the New York editor’s neck. “There it is, see?” He was rewarded with the rare and beautiful smile Howard usually bestowed on unattainable attractive women.
“I’m Vincent Bask,” the writer said, holding out his hand.
“Ah yes, a remarkable novel,” Howard said, and he vomited into Bask’s hand.”