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Siberia is a Manhattan drinking hole beloved by journalists and I don’t want to know who else. The jukebox is good, and the men’s room is not. Now located in a grandly dank space near Port Authority, it figures as a temple in which New York gossip reporters bare their inner souls in two new novels about the gossip business: Deborah Schoeneman’s 4% Famous and Ian Spiegelman’s Welcome to Yesterday. “You should just want to be four percent famous,” one of Schoeneman’s characters says to his peers. “That’s not cover-of-tabloids famous. … But it’s famous enough for a certain slice of the population to know your name, to want to sit next to you at dinner, and for you to have something at least relatively interesting to say.”
You might have caught one or both of the authors on television last month giving the public a peek at the gossip world in the wake of l’affaire Jared Paul Stern. Spiegelman has worked for Page Six, and Schoeneman, an alumna of the New York Observer and a contributing editor at New YorkMagazine, has also contributed to the Page. (Do I need to disclose that I’m socially acquainted with D. Scho? It should be clear that she’s socially acquainted with everyone.) Their books sketch out the broad strokes of the gossip writer’s worldview—misanthropy, operatic self-loathing—and they also manage to fill in the intriguing gaps: who gossip writers are, how they go about their business, and how they manage to live with themselves. The answers, respectively, are liberal-arts graduates, by playing hardball, and very carefully. Moreover, it would also seem that gossip writers, given the charge of crafting a novel, favor peculiar American Dream narratives. These protagonists are anti-heroes with stars in their eyes, bile in their guts, and incipient problems with their livers.
They are climbers always on the verge of losing confidence in their ability to climb. Schoeneman’s heroine is Kate Simon, a recent college grad working for the New York Examiner, which, based on the descriptions of the office and of Kate’s paltry salary, must be standing in for the Observer. But Kate really wants to be an investigative reporter. Her pal Blake Bradley works for glossy Manhattan, which, golly, must stand in for New York. Blake dreams of taking on something more substantial, like a book on a Palm Beach society murder, or at least a feature story, but he’s forgotten how to write those. Meanwhile, Spiegelman’s hero, Leon Koch, has a drinking problem, an impotence problem, a cynicism problem, and—judging by the attention paid to female ankles, heels, and stockings—an impressive collection of back issues of Leg Show. He’s a Bogart-like ex-idealist now given to existential sulking and treating whisky as a breakfast drink.
Such are the rigors of the job. Because of the power gossip pros wield and the VIP treatment they receive, they think of themselves as minor celebrities who should wallow in the same self-esteem and dependency problems of those they cover. (The stars—we’re just like them!) For instance, Kate’s buddy Tim—who writes a Page Six-like column for an Aussie magnate—was once a rising star and is now fabulously dissolute. His imagination is limited to sleeping with rich girls and taking exotic vacations. But he’s also drunk on influence: To seduce a skittish source, Tim coos, “Tell me about the people you hate so I can help you hate them.”
The texture Schoeneman gives to Tim’s hangovers is one of the book’s big pleasures. But the structural problem with the gossip novel is that spending years on the gossip beat seems to deform one’s sense of narrative scale. The nominal plot lines of 4% Famous are more like extended anecdotes. There’s an insider-trading scandal, a tax-evasion scandal, a bit of pregnancy drama, and a break-up. Kate has a tedious affair with a caddish celebrity chef that inspires Schoeneman—generally a clean-prose stylist in the early McInerney style—to write horribly. Here, the heroine and her beau are at Nobu eating sea urchin: “Marco tells her it’s an aphrodisiac and Kate’s not sure if it’s the uni or his leg against hers that’s making her body temperature rise.”
Meanwhile, Welcome to Yesterday wears its debts to Raymond Chandler as if they were pinstripes and suspenders: “Meredith Fields was malice in thousand-dollar shoes.” From this, it seems that gossip writers really do believe—cf, Jared Paul Stern’s fedora—that they are the rightful heirs of J.J. Hunsecker, the Walter Winchell figure in Sweet Smell of Success. When we pick up Spiegelman’s story, Leon’s co-writer has just published an item about a drug-addicted talent agent who blew his last chance, and now the agent’s committed suicide—at least according to the honeyed female voice who phones the tip in to Leon. Doesn’t this mystery sound good? And doesn’t it seem grandiose?
The depressing part of both books is that they inadvertently reveal gossip to be an addictive drug that’s impossible to kick. Schoeneman’s love story is really just a delivery vehicle for inside dope. Here’s the juice on trading favors, working the phones, looking good on a red carpet, and so much else. The book is also a greatest-hits package of the last six or seven years of dirt. (Which hotel heiress was spotted doing blow at a polo match?) This is a dire warning against the glamorous life that cannot help but make the Vanity Fair Oscar party still look kinda fun.
Neither Schoeneman not Spiegelman can resist romanticizing the very things they purport to disdain. Both authors indulge F. Scott Fitzgerald-type swoons. 4% Famous ends ripely, the heroine gazing out from her Brooklyn apartment: “Kate knows this is a new beginning. … A beginning that’s slowly, carefully coming into focus, as the millions of city lights ignite the sky all those miles across the river.” At a key moment in Welcome to Yesterday, Leon, sharing a cab back to Queens with a pretty girl, feels a tremble of redemption: “It was as if her eyes, in their vastness, imbued everything with an intrinsic decency—nothing in the world had rotted, there’d been no fall.” Both books note that the red light over Siberia’s door is the sole marker of its entrance. Both make it look like the green light at the end of the dock.