Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Smells Like Rat

By Shelly Ridenour

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

Slab Rat by Ted Heller (Simon & Schuster), $23, 332 pages

Oh, Ted Heller, you sly dog you. You snarky little rat, you eagle-eyed observer of -- and participant in -- pop culture! You're a real clever devil, with your rapier-sharp wit and your cunning ear for dialogue. The way you serve up skewering social satire, winking at Machiavelli and nodding at Trillen, even as you roll your eyes at your careerist peers. Bad boy!


The phrase "too clever for his own good" might come to mind during the first few chapters of Ted Heller's novel "Slab Rat," but it's quickly replaced by thoughts like "Why am I wasting my time here?" The book jacket raves, "Heller uses the magazine industry as a laboratory in which to dissect human nature." Human? No. Cartoons? Maybe. Funny cartoons? Not so much.

Protagonist (if you can say that about a character so boring) Zack is an associate editor at It magazine, a personality/lifestyle glossy -- think Vanity Fair -- that is one of the crown jewels in the Versailles Publishing -- think, duh, Condé Nast -- crown. (Almost all the Condé Nast pubs are represented with tee-hee cunning names: Vogue=She, Glamour=Her, GQ=Men, Details=Boy, The New Yorker=Gotham, etc. PS: Jacket notes also mention that Heller has worked at "Spy, Premiere, Details and (very briefly) Vanity Fair.") He's the kind of guy who needs a kick in the pants, who mopes around wondering why the world isn't giving him his due -- why he's isn't rising up the corporate ladder, why he isn't part of a power couple, why he doesn't have a cooler apartment.

His lazy brattiness is tiresome, even after that much-needed kick in the pants comes, in the form of a competitor. In Zack's eyes, fellow editor Mark Larkin is loathsome because he is a success, and he knows how to play the game.

And even when Zack decides to do something about it -- knock Larkin off -- he's actually just jumping on the bandwagon of another coworker, taking advantage of that guy's paranoid delusions and self destruction. And it is only in the end that the book becomes interesting: by sacrificing friendship, love and human life, Zack becomes the beastly caricature of survival-of-the-fittest careerism. Here Heller deserves some credit, for not pandering to the expected moralistic happy ending but a bleak one: as Zack gets everything he desires -- the promotion, the power-hungry trophy wife, the Rolodex fat with hipper-than-thou names, "Slab Rat" becomes a modern "careful what you wish for fairy tale." Too bad you have to wade through so much lazy-white-male crap to get there.

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