A Cannibal in Manhattan

Given the fact that several hundred novels are published every month, it is impossible to say with any authority that a particular book is one of the worst published in the year; even a glutton for fiction can read only a small fraction of the annual output. It is safe to say, however, that in the category of mainstream literary fiction--the fiction reviewed regularly in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and similar sources--Tama Janowitz’s A CANNIBAL IN MANHATTAN is not merely one of the worst books of the year but one of the worst of the decade.

Janowitz’s novel is the first-person narrative of Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, a fifty-five-year-old former cannibal who leaves his home and his three wives on New Burnt Norton, an island near New Guinea, for the urban jungle of Manhattan. Mgungu comes to the United States at the urging of Maria Fishburn, an heiress and Peace Corps volunteer some thirty years his junior, who shortly becomes his wife.

There is nothing wrong with this premise: One of fiction’s fundamental strategies is to make the familiar strange. After a few pages, however, the reader begins to suspect that Janowitz never really decided what to do with this promising scenario. The decorated endpapers, the drawings scattered through the text, and the center section of photographs (with Janowitz’s acquaintances, including the late Andy Warhol, posed as characters in the book) all suggest a spoof, but the book is much too long for that, and such modest aspirations conflict with Janowitz’s intermittent pretensions to moral satire. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the incoherence and sheer ineptness of this novel at every level.

Many reviewers have linked Janowitz with Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and others in the “Literary Brat-Pack.” That is a dubious approach; each book deserves to be judged on its own merits. In the case of A CANNIBAL IN MANHATTAN, the verdict is clear: Tama Janowitz is guilty of bad writing, bad taste, and first-degree vacuity.