August 25, 1986 12:00 PM

by Tama Janowitz

Janowitz, 29, has said that her aim as a writer is to “sort of be funny about the social conditions and mores of the time we live in.” She succeeds, sort of, with these 22 short stories set in her home territory, Manhattan’s downtown art scene. Her characters are avant-garde painters, jewelry designers, art dealers and performance artists, all trying to make it professionally while coping with the unreliable subways, indestructible cockroaches and scarcity of apartments that characterize New York City life. Eleanor, who appears in six of the stories, designs wacky jewelry (“shellacked seahorses, plastic James Bond-doll earrings”). Marley Mantello, another recurring character, is a starving artist who wants to construct his planned masterpiece, “the Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Woman,” adjacent to the Vatican. Janowitz is a keen observer. She knows what these people wear and what they eat for dinner, and she describes both in minute, often amusing detail. She knows also that her characters’ unconventional life-styles mask standard aspirations: success, love, and—at least in Eleanor’s case—”a real apartment, maybe with a little terrace, geraniums, and then I’d have dinner parties for eight or 10 every once in a while.” But Janowitz rarely digs beneath the surface of the lives she describes. It’s as if she hopes to reveal the soul of this offbeat world simply by writing down exactly how things look. (Crown, $15.95)

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