A One-Night Affair

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner Simon and Schuster, 284 pp., $7.95

ROSEANN QUINN liked having one-night affairs. She would often spend evenings in a New York singles bar looking for some company to make her feel a little less lonely. On New Year's Day 1973, she'd gotten slightly drunk with some guy she'd never seen before and feeling a little lustful invited him back to her apartment. She probably had no inkling that he would kill her--he maintained that it was unintentional--but then who would in the situation.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is Judith Rossner's very readable fictionalized account of the events leading up to Quinn's murder. It is an examination not so much of Quinn's killing as of her past; the way in which the 28-year-old schoolteacher's life, filled since childhood with an unexamined selfhatred, led to her sexual seekings at Mr. Goodbar's.

Theresa Dunn, Rossner's Quinn-character, had been uncomfortable with herself, both physically and personally since age four when polio left her spine curved. Though the spine was straightened somewhat by an operation and a year in the hospital left her with only the slightest limp, Theresa always retained a sense of her illness as something shameful. Her parents treated her differently than their other children, both pitying her and feeling guilty for not being able to prevent her illness. Theresa felt as though her mother was constantly reproaching her for not being so pretty and athletic as her younger sister. These attitudes on the part of her parents, though unspoken, contributed to her self-consciousness about her limp.

Rossner is at her best when dealing with Theresa's estrangement from her family as a result of her illness. In Theresa's withdrawal from her family, her only connection with people aside from her rigidly structured parochial school, Rossner lays the groundwork for Theresa's passivity toward all the men in her life. Her reaction to the constant unspoken reproach, the pity, is to bury her anxiety over her deformity as deeply inside her as possible. But it preoccupies her constantly.

With her back to the large mirror she held the one small one so that she could see her back. A shiny, pale pink seam ran down the lower part of her spine; near the top of her left buttock, the crescent scar where they'd taken the bone for the spinal fusion matched the large seam in color. She shivered. In the six years since the operation she had never looked at her naked back.

Theresa leaves her Bronx home to attend City College, where she becomes entangled with a sadistic, egotistical, boorish college professor and willingly loses her virginity. The professor is the only man in Looking for Mr. Goodbar that Rossner is able to portray convincingly. No longer young, he is interested in reaffirming his youth buy seducing the female students in his classes--or, rather, enticing them to seduce him--while at the same time constantly condescending to them to maintain his power and stature in their eyes as well as in his own. To Theresa's perpetual fears of bodily imperfection, the professor adds feelings of intellectual and sexual inadequacy by becoming hostile when they make love or by pretending to be oblivious to her seductions. And he is the man who first indicates to Theresa that here is something wrong with her inability to have orgasms. But Rossner makes it obvious that Theresa is willing to remain involved with the professor because she is comfortable in a degrading relationship.

The professor's eventual rejection of Theresa leaves her life filled only with a boring teaching job, and she begins to stalk bars for one-night stands. Though she makes a few attempts at longer relationships, they are usually dismally unbearable for her, because, fearing rejection, she avoids emotional involvement. Feeling she is inadequate to hold any man worth getting involved with, Theresa allows herself only sensual attachments.

The two long-term affairs Theresa does have are, for the most part, unconvincingly presented and major flaws in Goodbar. Her relationship with Tony, a violent Italian, becomes too obviously the acting out of a rape fantasy. This tough garage mechanic is too stereotypically animalistic to be believable. Theresa's longer involvement with James, a lawyer, is both unpleasant and impossible, she decides, because he is too nice for her either to love or to enjoy sex with. Rossner fails to make James realistic--his appearances at Theresa's apartment are just too altruistic and passionless.

THERESA'S MURDER by a man she picks up in Mr. Goodbar after her unsatisfying attempts at involvement with both Tony and James is not a political commentary on rape by Rossner. It remains a senseless act but not connected with the violence--both physical and emotional--in Theresa's life. Her death is unintended; the murderer sees himself as victim. It is, in a way, just one more example in Theresa's life of her inability to emotionally communicate with anyone. Though a few other women in Looking for Mr. Goodbar seem to pursue normal relations with both men and other women, Theresa cannot. Her killing--undesired by the killer--becomes Rossner's final comment on a lonely, emotionally-crippled woman's inability to somehow find a link between her emotionality and her sexuality.

But this comment is not really effective, for Theresa's plight is never totally convincing. One can only look to the book's sensationalistic subject to explain why Looking for Mr. Goodbar has been found on the best-seller lists.