Ghostwriting--producing pages to go under someone else's signature--is by its nature an undercredited job, a behind-the-scenes pinch-hitting. May Alto, the heroine of Bette Pesetsky's briskly clever novel, is a ghostwriter bent on revenge for her thankless labors, a ghost about to haunt one of her clients for all he's worth.
Mother of three--down-to-earth, orderly in her habits--May does most of her vengeance-plotting in the kitchen. "Do axe murderers plan their forty whacks in the middle of an ordinary life? . . . How can you plan a crime while frying bacon, being very careful to make it thoroughly crisp with no soft, moist edges?" May is planning blackmail; no one deserves dire threats more richly than her intended victim, a professor of "handsome and comforting appearance" who has gone very far on two books authored by May. Now he's about to hop a plane to Stockholm to pick up the Nobel Prize--and May wants the money, all of it.
Silky and stubborn, the professor is no pushover to blackmail--and much of the book's tension rests on May's grapplings with him, the hissed phone calls, the psychological sparring in restaurants. ("Did the mouse and the cat know which one is which?") The reader has no choice but to be solidly on May's side. Did the professor dream up one idea in his book? Did he even read through the manuscript with anything like real attention? Do they ever? For years May has inserted into her client's books the names of her own family members--her mother Sonya, her aunt Giselle, her uncle Trasker; no one ever notices.
A fast worker, May has ghosted reams of published work, and her hidden trademark appears in all sorts of unlikely places. Giselle as a girl in a white muslin dress in the politician's memoirs; Giselle cross-referenced to 1835, with footnotes, in a biography of Balzac; Giselle as computation--"If Giselle bought thirteen apples from the fruitseller Sonya and gave three of them to Trasker and ate one and returned four wormy ones to Sonya, how many would she have left?"
In Bette Pesetsky's earlier collection of short fiction, "Stories Up to a Point," some of the stories also involved a motif repeated over and over--a comic exaggeration with the dream-like effect of connecting disparate fragments, a running joke that was also the uncovering of an insistent secret.
If no one has caught on to the way May Alto keeps slipping her family into print, it's another sign of the way her life has been a continuing cycle of underappreciation. She grew up in a socialist household--"There was a lot of sharing that was very tiring. I wanted at one time a pair of Shirley Temple shoes with ankle straps. No one thought that was a thing worth wanting." Whenever she tries to air her old complaints about this, no one wants to listen. "Sure, baby," her husband says and leads her to bed before she finishes; her friends who grew up with her say it wasn't like that at all; her teen-age daughter says, "For goodness sakes, Mother."
Around May the conversation is mostly non sequiturs; people have their own interests. "Stand, little one," her mother's friends used to say, evicting her from her chair when there were loud discussions over tea. Now her ex-husband calls her "old girl" when he comes to borrow money. A ghost who brings in a substantial income, May is past master of the womanly arts of being completely dependable and conveniently invisible.
As the voice behind the figureheads and the woman-without-whom, May has been tireless in her labors, indefatigable in her powers of invention. The circle of evidence widens. "If Clyde Griffiths had gone out that night with Giselle, would Roberta have drowned?" "In 'A la recherche du temps perdu' Sonya offered the narrator the day's special in the bakery. 'The cherry strudel is the best,' she suggested. The narrator stamped his foot. 'Madeleines,' he insisted. He was obdurate. Some people will not try anything new."
Planted everywhere, May's ghostwriting becomes a metaphor engorged to colossal proportions, repeated so often that it's a shifting emblem--for the subrosa revenge of women (the "savage race" of the title); for the paranoid grandiosity of writers (who could have written all that) and the matching nightmare that no one reads it, no one notices; for the way all literature gets commingled with our own private histories anyway.
A trick ending--which attempts to extend the metaphor until it breaks--doesn't quite come off; nonetheless the book manages to be generally funny and fast-paced and absorbing throughout. Most successful of all is the character of May, strongly drawn and, like the book, a nice combination of the fabulous and the recognizably real.