A Jerk In Manhattan

ON BOOKS:

A Cannibal in Manhattan

By Tama Janowitz

Crown Publishers; 287 pages;

$ 17.95.

THERE'S NOTHING wrong with authors such as Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz. Trashy books, after all, play an important role in this world. Without them, standing on supermarket checkout lines would be even more boring. And what would summer on the beach be without that season's potboiling sensation?

But trashy books dressed up as "lit-trah-ture" are something entirely different.

Tama Janowitz's A Cannibal in Manhattan surely will rank at year's end as the singularly most annoying book of 1987. Janowitz somehow has failed to make an amusing tale out of the clever premise of a marriage between a purple-skinned polygamist and a rich Manhattan heiress. Her story of a reformed cannibal, Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, a native of the South Pacific island of New Burnt Norton, who visits New York City and finds a wife is pretentious, irritating and--worst of all--just plain boring to read.

It's not the first time Janowitz has failed to deliver the goods. She won much publicity and praise for her first book, Slaves of New York, and Cannibal clearly is a hastily written attempt to capitalize on her sudden fame. The success of Slaves, though, was undeserved. That book, too, didn't have much interesting to say about its clever premise, namely that the cost and shortage of housing in New York City is forcing many young, single women into dependent relationships with older men who own their own apartments. Hence, readers were treated to endless, repetitious variations on the theme that these women are Slaves of New York. Ha-ha.

WITH THE exception of a pretentious author's note at the novel's beginning, the entire novel is written in Mgungu's voice. Janowitz tries to endow it with an ironic wit, but instead it comes across as boring and arrogant.

The reader's sympathy swings against Mgungu early on in the novel. At one point, he describes himself as "A brutal and violently ignorant savage, though charming in a primitive way, who was fleeing his wives and 13 children for the charms of a young American, possibly even the Hamptons and the New York Film Festival if everything went well and I played my cards right." This is meant to be satirical, I suppose, but it's so clumsily executed and so misses its easy targets that one really can't be sure.

The rest of the book is pure torture. When Mgungu's heiress, Maria Fishburn, blows him off after their wedding--"Why don't we wait until we take our honeymoon?" she says--the cannibal thinks to himself, "I presumed this was the general custom in the United States, or at least in Manhattan." And then he gets into a Rolls Royce and goes to a strip show.

The rest of the book is equally ridiculous, as the cannibal gets accused of murder and is forced to go on the run. Of course, disguises are difficult for someone with purple skin, so Mgungu ends up in jail. There Janowitz leaves him, still making pseudoprofound observations about the nature of society.

Before he gets there, though, the cannibal does drugs and enters analysis. Give Janowitz some credit, though. She has collected in hardcover perhaps every hackneyed cliche ever made about the idle rich. A literary phenomenon created by the same chic Manhattanites she ineptly tries to parody, Janowitz doesn't seem the least bit aware of the element of self-parody in her novel. But, then again, anyone who could agree to appear in those liquor advertisements with Arthur Schlesinger that run in The New Yorker probably wouldn't.