On impulse she walked up Third, stopping in front of a place called Luther’s that looked crowded enough to be comfortable. You could walk right in and walk right out, which was important because she’d once again taken only her keys. She stood outside for a moment. Two couples came out, glanced at her without interest and continued on their way. She took a deep breath and went in, pretending to be looking for someone, walking around the bar, then looking at the tables in the back as though she were supposed to find someone she knew. There wasn’t anyone of course. Slowly she made her way back past the bar, still looking. Luther’s was darker and lusher than Corners, with dark wood and almost everything else red.
“Lookin’ for me?”
She smiled before she even saw him because she knew she wouldn’t have to go home.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Who you?”
Not long ago, the author of those lines was not particularly distinguishable from the host of bright, hip, Jewish divorcees haunting the delis and consciousness-raising klatches on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Judith Rossner had put in the approved couple of years dalliance on a rural commune in New Hampshire. Her marriage had disintegrated after 17 years. And she was back in hometown New York working as a secretary in a methadone clinic to support her children Jean, 15, and Danny, 9.
Narcotics aside, Rossner had her own addiction: writing. As a kid, her “precious words” had been faithfully taken down by mother. By the time she was 37, she had managed to publish three novels, mildly acclaimed by critics, but whose sales did not even cover the small advances she had been paid to write them. Nonetheless, Rossner got up at 5 a.m. every day to work at her typewriter for two-and-a-half hours before getting the kids off to school and herself to the clinic. In June 1973 she quit her job, sensing she was on to something with her fourth novel. She called it Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
The reaction has been spectacular. Even before the June 2 publication date, Simon and Schuster ordered a second printing of 10,000 copies. Paperback rights were driven to $305,000 in fierce bidding (escalators could carry that figure up another $100,000). Two book clubs anted in, the Literary Guild for one coughing up $20,000 to offer Mr. Goodbar as an alternate selection. Paramount has agreed to pay $250,000 for film rights.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is expected to sell as briskly as the tubes of suntan lotion against which it will be nestled in the tote bags of bikinied young women throughout the land this summer. The book is a shocker: a vivid psychobiography of a young woman who has confused the lonely, uncommitted life of singles bars and one-night stands with real freedom and control of her destiny. The reader is told from the outset that Theresa Dunn will be brutally beaten to death by her last pick-up, a sexual misfit whom she lures to her bedroom after encountering him in a singles joint called Mr. Goodbar. By the time the author has retraced Theresa’s blighted years from her birth in the Bronx (Rossner’s own cradle, as it happens) through her successive trouncings in the game of love, it becomes clear that Theresa was never fully alive at all.
Rossner’s singular ability to bore into and animate the consciousness of her pathetic heroine makes Looking for Mr. Goodbar read like a hybrid of Greek tragedy and the police blotter.
The case of Theresa Dunn closely resembles—as several reviewers have remarked—the widely publicized murder of a young New York schoolteacher, Roseann Quinn, in January 1973. Judith Rossner is sensitive on the point. “I will not be quoted as saying that Looking for Mr. Goodbar stems from the Roseann Quinn murder,” she says. (Part of her concern is possible legal entanglement with the Quinn family.)
She first read of the Quinn slaying while she was briefly laid up in a hospital, and subsequently attempted a nonfiction magazine article on the case. It was never published. Rossner points out that a grisly rash of “singles” murders at about that time was sufficient to warrant a writer’s attention to the subject—nor did she ever interview friends or family of Roseann Quinn.
“I went around creating Theresa in the way I’ve done all my other characters, developing traits, myths and so forth,” says the author. “As a single woman living in New York, the subject had to interest me.” Rossner—whose previous novel, Any Minute I Can Split, detailed a marital break-up in a New England commune—says she is distressed by the presumption of some journalists that certain of Theresa’s misadventures must be her own. “I’m asked questions as if I had written my autobiography. But the closer I get to home, the more I tend to disguise.” Not that Rossner’s novel runs contrary to her own ethical predilections. If there is a message in Mr. Goodbar it is the de-romanticization of singles’ life. The novelist—vaguely gratified by reports that one woman who read the book in galleys vowed never again to set foot in a singles’ bar—concludes for her own part that “marriage has its comforts. But it would have to be between books—they’re too energy-consuming.”
Rossner is enjoying what she describes as her most prolific literary period. She ordinarily terminates her morning’s writing with long-distance walking tours of New York—a hike to Times Square for lunch with old friends, to an art museum or to her music appreciation class at Juilliard.
On the wall of her study is a calendar schedule: 15 pages a week, target date Feb. 1, 1976. Then Hostages, a novel about the bizarre complications in the lives of attached Siamese twins, will be finished. The author admits she might like to do the screenplay.
Enough looking for Mr. Goodbar. Judith Rossner has arrived.