THE CIGARETTE GIRL

By Carol Wolper

Riverhead. 208 pp. $22.95

Don't judge this very good novel by its cover. In a stunning example of perverse negative marketing, the publishers here have managed to make it so that anyone who buys this book for its cover will be terribly disappointed by its content, and anyone who reads the book and loves it will be hopelessly offended by the cover. This cover! A facsimile of a cigarette package (Lucky Strike, I think) has a Marilyn Monroe knockoff in the center, tastefully dressed in seven glimmering bras. Since "The Cigarette Girl" is a novel about Hollywood, this cover doubtless speaks to New York's tenacious, ham-handed belief in the West Coast as a (stupidly corny) Gomorrah. If Dostoevski had written "Crime and Punishment" in Southern California, they'd probably have suggested he pose for his author photograph in a silver lame thong.

If you can get past this hellacious display, and some deliberately harsh, strong language, you'll find fascinating material here. Again, the marketers must have been in some condescending delirium of their own. "A furiously funny, clear-eyed novel about a non-bimbo's dating adventures in a town that celebrates bimbosity"--that's the way they describe it. They might want to read it again.

Elizabeth West is a moderately successful screenwriter. She makes a good living doing rewrites for action movies, which presents her as an oddity in a town where female writers, directors and producers generally stick to chick flicks that will ultimately end up on the Lifetime channel. Elizabeth loves to party and, up until now, she's had a thing for "bad boys" (which every wife who's preferred the darling box boy to her self-absorbed stockbroker husband will understand). She likes sex, or says she does. Actually, Elizabeth prefers the sex at the end of a date to the boring dinner and drinks that you have to go through to get to the end of that date. But she's lost interest. The implicit trouble with bad boys is that they're not strong on conversation. And what is a "bad boy" anyway? A convict, like the first boyfriend of hers that we see? A guy who wears an increasingly smelly set of leathers? Elizabeth's dad puts his finger on the problem when he remarks that in the '60s, it was easy to be bad: All you had to do was smoke dope.

The conflict in "The Cigarette Girl" is simple enough. Elizabeth has turned 28. She tells us that, from now until she turns 36, she'll be "in the Zone," the time when women have to stop fooling around, find some kind of reasonable man, settle down to have some babies. It's what the world wants from women; it's what she thinks she wants.

The trouble is, either way she looks at it, the future appears a little bit vile and totally untenable. She can't imagine herself as a mother; she views "wifehood" as a form of prison or worse. Her own mother was married, divorced and is now just as single and at loose ends as she is. Her father, in a conventional second marriage with the conventional second set of kids, seems dim and sad--again, imprisoned. On the other hand, what's going to happen if Elizabeth stays single, out in the clubs, just getting older and older? The author offers up a hideous apparition of a woman to whom this has happened, and it's enough to send any sentient person out to the suburbs in search of a minivan and the perfect dud husband, pronto.

Elizabeth has had a serious crush on her mentor, a director of action films named Jake, for years, or what seems like years. It's not too much to say she loves him. She'd love to have sex with him--that goes without saying--but he's into very beautiful blondes. He talks to Elizabeth; she talks to him. With him, a very traditional male-female relationship is possible: He knows things about the unique, stressful, strange world they inhabit that she will never know. If knowledge is power, and he has all the knowledge, she willingly concedes him all power over her. She is the humble, alert, curious learner. What she is trying to learn is: How does one live in this extraordinarily mind-bending community, the world of making high-budget action films? Far more important, what is the correct way to approach life itself? For in a world of would-be bad boys, Jake is a true outlaw. Thieves, murderers, dopers break the law; Jake makes his own.

Elizabeth spends much of her time with girlfriends; one's going to get married, one's having a secret affair, all of them work. They go out to dinner and theorize about life. Most of these theories are half-baked--they're just theories--but some have the ring of truth. For instance, life consists of relationships, career and body maintenance (looking good and keeping healthy). It's the nature of life that most of us can manage to do only two out of three. There's a lot of theorizing about sex, the nature of sex, what we're looking for in sex. Again, the language is harsh, more than explicit, but the thoughts have value.

Making action movies! Maybe that's something like living an event-filled life. The author follows another tradition here--the Hollywood novel tradition--carefully and soberly. There is the obligatory screening in Glendale. The taking of the terrible meeting. The premiere, in which all plot lines are tied up. Even a love scene in an unfinished house, as in "The Last Tycoon." But again, within this formula the author is asking the hugest possible questions: How does an individual find his highest, truest destiny? What is the correct way to live?

Enough hints--in the acknowledgments and in additional material supplied by the author--suggest that Jake is modeled on Don Simpson (maker of action films, the author's former mentor), now deceased. Simpson was a famous Hollywood bad boy who died of an overdose; many people in Los Angeles clucked over the matter of his death. "The Cigarette Girl," besides being about a woman who would rather talk (and make love) to a man than be either his bimbo or his wife, is also a defense of that enigmatic figure and how he lived his life.

If you can stomach the cover, and if you're interested in some of these questions, this is definitely a book to read.

Upcoming in Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

A CERTAIN AGE, by Tama Janowitz. A novel about a husband-hunting woman in the Big Apple. Reviewed by Jay A. Fernandez.

GROUP: Six People in Search of a Life, by Paul Solotaroff. The members of an old-fashioned therapy group have allowed a journalist to tell their stories. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.

THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS, by Robert Remini. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE WOMEN WHO WROTE THE WAR, by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Nonfiction about female journalists in World War II. Reviewed by Susan Jacoby.

CASSANDRA'S DAUGHTER: A History of Psychoanalysis, by Joseph Schwartz. Reviewed by Carolyn See.