A CERTAIN AGE

By Tama Janowitz

Doubleday. 317 pp. $23.95

Tama is back! And once again she's brought all of Manhattan with her. The author of the career-making "Slaves of New York" has returned with an updating of Edith Wharton's black comedy of manners "The House of Mirth." It has been nearly a hundred years since Wharton's novel was published, but, according to Janowitz's merciless and monothematic "A Certain Age," nothing much has improved in the land of the sophisticated savages.

The Lily Bart of Janowitz's amusing end-of-the-century version is one Florence Collins, and boy is she a mess: 32 years old, blond, beautiful, a Manhattanite for 10 years, self-centered, self-deluded, self-righteous, self-loathing. She is a woman with the singular, self-appointed mission of finding a husband, his money and their accompanying status--not necessarily listed in order of importance. Throughout the novel, the reader may admire Florence's consistency but certainly not her methods or lack of perspective. Florence is the type of woman who will go into major debt to have an apartment with a "good address" and then spend $400 on a hat on a whim, justifying it as an "investment in her future": that of a comfortable, kept, craven rich man's wife. Every gesture, every action is calculated to further this hollow dream.

"A Certain Age" begins promisingly with a delicious set piece. Florence has been invited by a shrewish acquaintance to a house in the Hamptons for the weekend. It is the kind of affair a fringe player like Florence should consider herself lucky to attend. In less than 48 hours, however, she sleeps with the woman's boorish husband, nearly drowns the woman's doomed daughter and floods several floors of the million-dollar house. This sets the tone right away, and the too-much-is-not-enough technique continues throughout the novel, with varying degrees of success.

The plot, such as it is, follows Florence back to the city, where she goes to parties at which she detests every person in attendance, pursues and sleeps with some of the most brutish and worthless males in recent literary memory, invests the last of her inheritance blindly and badly, allows unfortunate amounts of drugs and sex to be forced on her, and learns absolutely nothing from any of it.

A jewelry appraiser for a third-rate auction house, Florence uses her sharp critical skills merely to size up each man and woman she comes into contact with, meticulously noting every article of clothing, instantly rating the person either below or above her in the immutable social hierarchy. This is an apt occupation for her, as Florence would be more than happy to sell herself to the highest bidder. She knows all too well, though, that in this rarefied atmosphere her value is quickly depreciating over time. Yet this thoroughly pathetic character somehow still rates some sympathy. Or is it pity? It's a very fine line, and the reader's reaction will depend, I suspect, on whether he or she often takes the SUV to the mansion with the private beach for the entire month of August, along with the cook and housekeeper.

It's no secret that New York City is the shallowest place on Earth. It's a world of cutthroat competition, thousand-dollar aromatherapy, catered baby showers, bad art openings, enormous houses in the nearby Hamptons, gleeful betrayals and personal drivers named Tibor. In Janowitz's vision, the highest attainable state seems to be reached when one has finally been "seared clean of human insecurities, feelings, weaknesses, emotions." Florence burrows into this moral vacuum with enthusiasm and some little bit of self-awareness. She casually admits that "money and status were her pollen. Only by ridding herself of any vestige of humanity could she acquire them, and that did not seem such a big price to pay."

"A Certain Age" is funny but relentlessly mean. Only one character has even a trace of humanity, and Florence shuns him for having committed the one unforgivable sin worse than being outright poor: He does legal work for the homeless rather than whore for millions of dollars. The book is populated with some truly despicable people--whose dirty little secrets are played out in the gossip pages and who are as self-absorbed, deliberately cruel and as emotionless as, well, actual New Yorkers. The reader gets the impression that Janowitz may be working out some real bitterness or past injustices on her imaginary characters. But one need only open the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times--with its articles on $2,300 pillows and "the mass-marketing of luxury" and super-rich Hamptons hostesses who pay their foreign "help" less than minimum wage--to realize the truth in the hyperbole.

This book is a canvas of unrepentant ugliness--New York City as put to the page by Todd Solondz or Neil Labute. Like those film directors, Janowitz has a tendency to bludgeon the reader to make her point, and it can get awfully monotonous. As satire, the novel could have used a writer with more finesse, with less of an instinct to go to the obvious extreme. Her touch can be like a meat hammer. But if the author means for Florence's travails to be read as realism, as she implied during a recent "Politically Incorrect" appearance, one would have to think of these poor women and say, Tama, it can't be that bad.

Can it?

Sarah Booth Conroy is away. Chronicles will resume upon her return.