T. Gertler has such enormous, guileless eyes, such a delicately boned face, such a whispery voice when the subject is a tricky one. And she has taken such pains to set cherries and cheese on the various butcher-block surfaces of her white-walled apartment. She is so solicitous about turning up the air conditioning and offering iced expresso. Surely such a person wouldn't intentionally, cold-bloodedly, set out to guarantee attention for her rakish first novel, "Elbowing the Seducer," by peopling it with an editor and a critic -- men recognizable enough to spark river-to-river gossip among literary and journalistic cliques and claques -- and a fledgling female writer with a single first initial who beds them both and chronicles it all in a novel?
"I was very surprised and very pleased that it got attention," T. says softly, settling onto a loveseat. "I'd like to think the reason it got attention is that it engaged people in some way."
Well, yes. Engaging, deftly written and funny -- all the reviews said so. But "Elbowing" also offers everyone in media circles a chance to play guessing games around their office copiers. Haven't people been asking her who the priapic Howard and the suffering Newman really are, and whether D. Reeve is Trudy Gertler? "That seems to come up quite a bit," T. admits, voice dropping a few notches, eyes widening further. "It seems sort of mildly titillating to the people who bring it up. I don't know what to make of it."
Mildly titillating? An actual case study, confirmed by participants, of New York's response to "Elbowing the Seducer": Editor A, at Esquire (where T.'s first published story appeared), has to order review copies from Random House four times because intrigued colleagues keep swiping them. At the office and at Elaine's, Editor A and associates believe they've figured out precisely which fiction editor and which newspaper critic Howard and Newman represent. Editor A calls Writer B, who sits up nights reading the book. B passes her inside information along over dinner with Agent C, who has already heard all the dirt at lunch with another editor. So Writer B enlightens a friend at the Boston Globe, stimulating the book's sales in New England. Meanwhile, Editor A calls a friend at Rolling Stone, and on it goes. "Elbowing the Seducer" has sold out its first printing of 6,500 copies and a second printing is under way. This is not mild titillation, this is exegesis more normally practiced by doctoral candidates in comparative lit.
"They're wrong," T. gasps, looking astonished and helpless. "The notion that people are attaching real people to characters I made up is distressing. It's invasive -- as well as preposterous.
"In one way, I find it appalling for someone to mistake fictional characters for real life. In another way, it's nice. Not nice if they think it's someone real," she amends, "but nice if they think the character is real enough to be someone real. The first time it happened" -- T. relaxes, telling how someone called to say he was the man in her Esquire story because his belt buckle matched the one in the accompanying illustration that T., of course, had nothing to do with -- "I was very insulted, as though someone had called me a vampire living off someone's blood or something. People read a book and associate it with the author. If there's a heroine with an initial it must be slapped right down from life."
When she is not expressing earnest, Philip Roth-like dismay about this disturbing propensity, Gertler is lively, laughing, slightly squirrelly and greatly enjoying her success. Co-workers at the public relations firm where she free-lances because great reviews don't pay the rent ("I got this linen suit, not corporate, but at least linen. But I wear this Swiss Army bag, a gray thing with black numbers on it. I know it doesn't work, but I like the bag. And great, sophisticated earrings I bought on the street for $2") are proud and amused. A male executive who'd always thought she looked innocent told her "you could fry eggs" on so racy a volume. "New would-be friends are propositioning me," she giggles. "And I'm getting pretty bizarre mail."
Gertler looks like a kid -- there's a Springsteen tape on her cassette recorder, a Pier One inexpensiveness to her spare Village flat and a water pistol on the end table -- but she's 38, divorced, and used to working for a modest living. When her advance ran out a year and a half before "Elbowing the Seducer" was finished, she took a night shift job at a printing plant on Chambers Street, came home to watch the sunrise from her tiny terrace, then tried to write. "It was very unpleasant for a while," says Gertler, who has edited educational materials, written unfilmed screenplays and been an editorial assistant at Ralph Ginsberg's "Avant Garde" (after she'd read through the unsolicited manuscripts, Ginsberg directed her to investigate whether Lady Bird Johnson had breast-fed Lynda and Luci).
Since she has not yet signed a contract for the novel she's working on now ("Heavy Breathing," she's calling it), it is unclear when or whether she will have the luxury of writing full time. "My idea of success is having enough money to, without thinking about it at all, get into a cab any time of day or night, go uptown and see any movie I want," she fantasizes, hugging her legs.
But for now she is gleefully collecting photocopies of her warm reviews and visiting bookstores because she understands that autographing books helps move them off the shelves. Her editor (who greatly resembles D. Reeve's editor in "Elbowing") hosted a small dinner party at the SoHo Charcuterie, where Gertler worked up the nerve ("I was very excited and a little drunk") to thank critic James Atlas for his kind jacket blurb, even though it did blow T.'s cover by revealing the author as a "her." For a timid soul terrified of having a photograph on the jacket of her novel, that was brazen behavior.
Gertler has noticed comic essayist Fran Lebowitz in a Village bookstore and been too intimidated to interrupt her conversation to thank her for the other kind cover blurb. "I was standing there, holding my dog, waiting until she was finished. I felt like such a jerk that I wrote a note instead," Gertler sighs. "She looked very imposing. Maybe if I'd had a glass of wine."
Gertler also worried about women's reactions. D. Reeve, after all, spends much of the novel as a talented but pathetic waif who feels ennobled by lunch-hour couplings with married men. "Is it going to be clear?" T. had fretted. "Are people going to know that that's irony? In wanting to look at ourselves as women, it didn't seem allowed for us to have a sense of humor. I wanted to look at women, and men, who aren't 'highly evolved.' " A longtime feminist, Gertler felt pleased and vindicated by a respectful review in Ms.
The question that's really proving more troublesome to the book's analysts, Editor A and Writer B and all, is: Who is Vincent Bask? This other male in "Elbowing," the one with the extravagant sexual endowment, doesn't seem to resemble any known, red-haired T-shirted novelist. Writer B's husband had suggested that Bask might, just possibly, be fiction, an idea that reportedly has horrified the entire circle.
At this, Trudy Gertler laughs, loudly and happily. She says she's got to write that one down.