Tama Janowitz, Unchained

Tama Janowitz is, apparently, no longer a slave of New York. She’s got a three-bedroom prewar penthouse sixteen floors up in the sky, with a wraparound deck that’s completely serene save for the occasional plane. This is where the onetime chronicler of downtown-Manhattan angst wrote her sixth novel, A Certain Age; where she grows tomatoes, tends to two “panicky” dogs, and takes care of her shy 3-year-old daughter, Willow, whom Janowitz and her British husband, Warhol-estate curator Tim Hunt, adopted in China when she was nine months old. The place is terrific. It’s also in Brooklyn, on a leafy street in Park Slope that seems a world away from the trendy urban environs where she cemented her literary reputation.

“Yeah, I was worried, ‘cause you had to take one subway, then another subway, then you walk twenty minutes, and finally you were there and you feel, I’ll never get out of Brooklyn,” says Janowitz. On this humid July morning, the author is on her terrace, wearing a loose-fitting patterned dress over a pair of white silk trousers. Her hair is black and wild, and her toenails are bright yellow. Her full lips are, as always, lipsticked bright red, and she has a habit of puffing them out when she’s thinking hard. She doesn’t look 42. “We were looking at houses in Harlem, but I said, ‘Tim, I don’t want a house. I’ve lived in a brownstone; they’re always dark,’ ” she says. ” ‘Something falls off the roof and kills someone, we’re going to be sued. Someone pours the garbage on the street – you get the ticket.’ “

Shaking her head, Janowitz shuffles over to a spindly peach tree. “I don’t know what to tell you, babe,” she says. “Whether I’m critically well received, whether or not I sell books – of course it becomes progressively harder to get them published – nevertheless, it’s what I do, every day.” She pushes her chunky glasses up on her nose. “I keep saying, ‘What else could I do? What else could I do?’ On bad days, I think I’d like to be a plastic surgeon who goes to Third World countries and operates on children in villages with airlifts, and then I think, ‘Yeah, right, I’m going to go back to undergraduate school and take all the biology I missed and then go to medical school.’ No. No.”

Curling her bare feet under her, Janowitz stares up at a cloudless sky. “Life is really excellent just hanging out up here, with the birds,” she drawls. “Though I’d be a lot happier if I had a ferret.”

So I’m living in New York, the city, and what it is, it’s the apartment situation. That’s what kicks off the title story of Janowitz’s famous 1986 collection, Slaves of New York. When she wrote it, Janowitz was a 28-year-old Barnard grad – the daughter of a poet and a psychiatrist – who’d received a grant from the N.E.A. at 22. Slaves, the first collection of short stories to hit the best-seller list since Phillip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, landed its pretty young author on the cover of New York Magazine and transformed her into an overnight media sensation. Flamboyant enough to garner reams of column inches, Janowitz made an easy transition from unknown downtown kook to late-eighties icon, finding herself as popular with the paparazzi as Donald Trump. She made a “hip-hype” literary video for MTV, appeared in Amaretto ads, arranged blind dates for Andy Warhol, and materialized on the airwaves whenever there was any talk of bohemia, twentysomethings, or life in New York in general.

But after this explosive start came the predictable backlash. Janowitz’s subsequent novels – A Cannibal in Manhattan, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, and By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee – drew uniformly scathing reviews. A notoriously demanding client, she ran through six agents in as many books, including ICM’s powerful Amanda Urban. Publisher’s Weekly cruelly dubbed her a “one-book phenomenon.” She had become something of a publishing punch line.

Then she wrote A Certain Age. long before the book hit the stores, it had generated an enthusiastic buzz among publishing cognoscenti, inevitably evoking excited comparisons to Slaves. “I just feel really, really, really lucky this time,” says Janowitz, taking a sip of iced coffee. “People are talking about it, trying to figure out who’s who. That’s exciting. Everyone thinks that a story is about some girl they went out with ten years ago. I’m like, I don’t even know her.”

The novel follows the misadventures of one Florence Collins, a blonde 32-year-old auction-house assistant director, on her hunt for a rich husband over a summer in the city and the Hamptons, a picaresque journey that is the flip side of Bridget Jones: It’s a distinctly unfunny book. Manhattan was a shabby world, inhabited by cardboard cut-outs, and Florence walked among them, writes Janowitz. Her characters are propelled by status, greed, and fear. Envy eats Florence whole, as she sleeps with all the wrong men, takes unfortunate amounts of drugs, and bankrupts herself at Barneys to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were women younger than her who had published novels, writes Janowitz. Who were heading P.R. companies; there were women older than she who were more muscular, who were married to the heads of movie-production companies; there were always others who were more.

Despite her self-enforced exile in Brooklyn, Janowitz is not immune to the glittery lure of success. Last week she attended her celebrity-studded book party in the Hamptons, where guests toasted her “latest comeback.” Not surprisingly, however, she’s still a bit sensitive. “Every book I write, the media just keeps punching me in the face,” she complains. She’s angry over a Vogue squib on A Certain Age: “Needs to look up the definition of satire, reread her book, and die of shame.” There is clearly a hurt about her career that goes deep. At one point in A Certain Age, Florence reluctantly agrees to go to a concert in Carnegie Hall. The people looked even worse now that she was getting to observe them close up, writes Janowitz. There was a woman she recognized from the papers as a relatively well-known writer – probably in her late thirties, with long black frizzy hair, schlumpy, wearing a long plaid skirt and red sweater, completely out-of-style. Why didn’t she do something to fix herself up, it seemed ridiculous to live in Manhattan and not be attuned to the right thing to wear and how to look. No wonder she hadn’t had a successful novel in at least ten years.

Please, Tama, don’t go there.

Tama Janowitz, Unchained