DE TROW: George W. S. Trow's Bullies

George W. S. Trow, who may be the New Yorker's archest feuilletonist, has chosen for his "beat" the periphery of pop culture. Not the mainstream, the important, the healthy, the familiar, but the detritus -- the eccentric magnates, the expensive failures, the avant garde of fashionable trivia. It was Trow who trailed Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun for five years to get the definitive profile. It was Trow who went to lunch with the Rock Critic Establishment and told all. It was Trow who conceived the notion of the Bobby Bison Affordables, "attractive but superfluous young people" who could be hired to consume on demand.

His first book Bullies is the sort of slim volume that Ronald Firbank might have scribbled onto his famous blue note cards before tying up in a ribbon and delivering, dangled from an index finger, to his publisher. These 16 stories, all originally printed in the New Yorker, are baroque little fictions that are distinct yet interlocking, as though the author were too impatient or neurasthenic to shape them into a novel.

They are full of: odd brochure talk; self-congratulatory buzzwords such as "the new" this or "special" that (i.e., "just for us"); concern with security -- security not in wealth or position but in protection from bodily harm; intimations of recent global catastrophe; graceful insinuations of the worst aspects of expensive people. They display a sensibility so rarefied as to transcend sensibility, so rarefied as to make you want to throw the book down and cry "Faugh!" (or wose). This is writing about a certain kind of self-absorbed person for a certain kind of reader who loves to hear about frivolous high life and feel superior, who knows there is more to life than chic, such as reading baroque fiction of a certain kind. These are a few reasons why I love to read every word Trow writes.

I am the sort of reader who, when reading in a story called "Obstruction" about Morgan Aspair, the intensely neurotic and spoiled daughter of legendary film producer Hemming Aspair, who is feuding with her sister Vanessa, remembers reading earlier in "At Lunch with the Rock Critic Establishment" about Vivian Aspair, the editor of feminist rock-and-roll quarterly Mother Rock and wonders if Morgan, Vanessa and Vivian are supposed to be sisters and who further wonders what their relation is to the Aspairs of "Moon Over Alani Beach," whose folly it was to build the rococo Palacio de Bellas Artes hotel "which failed to catch on, which failed even before the general failure, which had not even the distinction of triggering the general failure."

At his best -- in the first section of Bullies -- Trow recalls Forgetting Elena, Edmund White's lyrical rococo mythicization of Fire Island. Trow's territory is Alani Beach, an imaginary community of hotels inhabited mostly by helpless, wealthy, phony royalty, old movie stars who look like "sad, little sticks" as they stand on the staircase and wave, and other deluded American aristocracy. So detailed, yet so fuzzy around the edges, this place could only exist in the mind, or on paper, or in a bottle, like Atlantis. The book's middle section is its least successful; it invents a new genre of writing that might be called "commodity satire" but for which there can be little demand, although it is amusing to encounter such vividly drawn characters as Gerry Plume, whose elderly magnate husband has suffered a massive stroke while humping a model on his office sofa, thus inspiring Gerry to market a line of sofas with the slogan, "Gerry Plume Adult Divans, Did You Have To Be That Comfortable?"

The books' final section combines Trow's mock-mythmaking with his insufferably contorted in-joking in a stylization of pop culture more entertaining, more offhandedly scathing and probably more long-lived that any documentary: rock critics, Bob Dylan and Renaldo and Clara, Hollywood, Brooke Hayward, all squeezed through a style that combines Gertrude Stein's flat cadences, Donald Barthelme's whimsical obscurity and Firbank's descriptive wit. Trow is all style; style is as important to him as it is to the people he writes about, many of whom are so frivolous they don't deserve to live, obsessed as they are with vogues and fashion and social status and physical beauty -- "all the things," Andrew Holleran wrote in Dancer From the Dance, "one shouldn't throw away an ounce of energy pursuing, and sometimes throw away a life pursuing."

Occasionally Trow stumbles upon something that is not only precious but valuable, a "wreath of insight" about our fascination with the rich and famous, the heroes-by-default who occupy our fantasies, tiny truisms about silly social manners -- some surprisingly vicious. "I find that high-powered dynamic men like to humiliate easy women, and that makes a party go," Mrs. Armand Reef (who "Likes to Entertain) says "frankly." A character in the title story has such a weakness that "sometimes he has to buy a car or join a health club or make a woman absorb his fear." A young professional mentioned in "I Expand My Horizons" does all his errands in New Haven in order to imply that he went to Yale. "This technique, over the years, has been strangely effective." So has Trow's. You may hate his voice -- for its pretentious confidentiality, its barely contained starstruckness, its militant stylishness -- but you always know exactly whose it is.

Soho News, April 30, 1980