It's getting late up at Eugene's and things are turning ugly. Joseph, young and idealistic and roaring drunk, tears into Douglas, the cynical dean of their literary clique, calling him "third-rate." One of the other writers at the table offers limp rebuttal.
" 'Douglas is not third-rate,' said Sigrid. 'None of us is first-rate, but we're not third-rate, either.' "
"Hacks at Lunch," Mary Bringle's anthem to -- who else? -- hacks, is about mediocrity, the ignominy of being good, but not good enough. Douglas writes mysteries, Sigrid "bodice-rippers," Joseph Rambo-like adventures, and Clare historical romances; all their fiction is made to order. They all know that to earn a hack license, it is necessary to: tell a story; know your way around the cliche's of passion and intrigue; have lots of pseudonyms handy; and be able, with workmanlike skill, to make the MacGuffin fall out of the attic closet precisely on Page 168, or to help the raven-haired heroine reach her orgasm exactly on 202.
The four writers (poor, insecure and starved for company) meet every other Tuesday at Eugene's. Bringle (herself a pseudonym) exploits the time-honored notion that the one truly great benefit of living the writer's life is being able to take a late lunch. Their get-togethers, however, resemble those of the Algonquin Round Table in TV dinner form -- shrunk in size and wit. But then these hacks make little pretense to being anything but writers of pulp; none of their books is headed for the syllabus of Lit. 110. Their talk is of unpaid advances; how to kill off, credibly, a peripheral character in an upcoming saga; occasionally, an old, mutual friend gone Hollywood. When it's discovered that Joseph, when not churning out Rat Patrol yarns, is sandwiching in time for his Real Novel, both Douglas and the ever-tolerant Clare try to talk him down, as if he were a potential suicide tottering on the ledge of a 12th-story window. Enough's enough; now get down from there.
Unlike the action-packed stories the hacks write, not a whole lot happens in "Hacks at Lunch." The story is incidental and the tone, at times, tepid. Rather it is Bringle's understanding of her characters' motivation, and their own understanding of their limitations, that are valuable. In Sigrid and Clare, Bringle exemplifies well how the hack grows so reliant on -- or blind to -- the distinction between the real world and the fanciful ones she creates. Sigrid tries to coax Clare into an affair with Eugene McCloy, the bar's humble proprietor, because "Sigrid knows it can be pleasant to have affairs with plain, simple men, because they are so stunned and grateful." Sigrid knows where the flesh ends and the flesh tones begin.
Meanwhile, Clare, a former actress, may have been victimized by the excesses and vanities of her old and new professions. She searches exhaustively for an eyeliner pencil with which she can "perform a trick that transforms her dark eyes from the 'beautiful, beautiful brown eyes' of the old song her father used to sing to her to something resembling the 'huge, dark pools of liquid velvet' she has given to some of her heroines."
The stories behind each writer's desires and frustrations trickle out with every new round of drinks. The hacks seem to have many of their epiphanies during trips to the bathroom, a detail that is at once authentic and vaguely grating. Bringle offers some keen insights -- "Clare's words slur slightly now, and Sigrid envies her ability to be affected by liquor" -- and displays an especially deft touch throughout when describing the sweet McCloy, he of the "decent blue eyes . . . a nice pedestrian blue, rather like the color of a policeman's shirt."
This is not a risky novel. Rather its pleasures are small and palpable -- like the pleasure of eating cheeseburgers and drinking beers with friends, and of having conversation that does not threaten to end prematurely. We care about these literary soldiers of fortune, even if we don't quite applaud what they do for a living. If we admire the real soldier of fortune, it is mostly because he gets himself dirty; all the hack does is type, and every now and then call his agent, if he's got one. When lunch at Eugene's goes from gossipy to bitchy and climaxes in a square-off between Douglas and Joseph, a breach has been made. That's good. Because when our writers finally do call it an evening, we're reminded that hacks are people too, just trying to earn an honest buck; we remind ourselves that, yes, even hacks get dirty, if only their fingernails, every time they change their typewriter ribbon.