Picks and Pans Review: Platitudes

updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Trey Ellis

Here's a funny, intelligent first novel that revolves around clichés of love and storytelling. At its center is a literary dispute. Dewayne Wellington, a struggling novelist, is blocked in writing a "two-completely-different-types-fall-in-love story" called Platitudes, which features two teenagers, Dorothy and Earle. Isshee Ayam is a feminist writer who challenges Dewayne's "atavistic" portrayal of women and his writing style. To characterize the writers' differences, Ellis allows Isshee and Dewayne to alternate writing Dewayne's novel. Dewayne does a chapter set in today's New York City and told in a modern experimental mode; Isshee revises it in naturalistic fashion. For example: Dewayne's Earle wakes to a digital alarm clock in a room with a schefflera plant and "Earle's collection of college pennants and the large map of the world voodooed with redheaded pins through the heart of every city Earle will visit on his sabbatical from Cal Tech or MIT." Isshee's revised first chapter, "Rejoice!" begins: "Earle awakened to a day as new and as fresh as Mama's hand-starched and sun-dried petticoat, a huge, plain garment as large and as fresh-smelling as the revival tents that bloomed every summer along Route 49 in Loundes County, Georgia." Each chapter and revision is preceded by a letter of critical evaluation from either Dewayne or Isshee. Ellis thus advances Dorothy and Earle's competing sagas—which turn into separate novels—and develops a relationship between the writers. The effect, a brisk, wide-ranging parody packed with references from I Love Lucy to the music of Thelonious Monk, amounts to a calculated risk. But Ellis is, more often than not, on target. At a movie, "a perky male voice" narrates a trailer: "She is the fiery first female President of the United States. He is the arrogant and handsome young Soviet premier. What happens when these two hardheads lock horns in their first summit meeting?...They fall in love. FOREIGN AFFAIRS. A very diplomatic romance." A journalist whose work has appeared in such varied periodicals as Newsweek, Interview and Art & Antiques, Ellis has written a vibrant, comical tale. (Vintage Contemporaries, paper, $6.95)

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