Bette Pesetsky

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Barbara Koenig Quart

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In Bette Pesetsky's awkwardly titled but inventive novel, Author From a Savage People, women are the "savage people" and the heroine, May Alto, is the "author," a much put-upon ghostwriter…. [Its] central emotion is its heroine's intense ambition, her anger and the pleasure she takes in wreaking vengeance, in feeling powerful for a change. May is an uncredited "helper": to her many clients; to her two former husbands, who used her and deceived her, one shamelessly continuing to do so; to her three children. (p. 738)

May is guided throughout by advice (often banal) from her mother and aunt, both long dead—a nice fictional equivalent of the mother-mentor voice we carry in our heads…. May's glee mounts over her power to make the now famous Quayle quail; and her demands grow ever more outrageous, until she's telling him she wants everything that's his—not only his Nobel Prize and his money but his wife, his house. All the while Pesetsky makes us aware of the stab wound in May's arm that won't heal properly, an emblem of vulnerability and guilt to accompany her aggression.

For all that, the novel never feels polemical. It has its own vision, and its own large ambitions and skills. It keeps making surprising leaps and yet it has a strong narrative, at least until—fairly late in the book—it runs out of material. Central devices misfire, particularly May's repeated use in her ghost-writing inventions of an early family triumvirate—mother Sonya, aunt Giselle, uncle Trasker. (Actually, the novel is as much about literary invention as it is about anything else—along with a bitterness toward the hyper-rewarded celebrity writers who bask in applause while the less favored scratch away in harassed obscurity.) May's use of those three family names in every kind of writing she does—even if it can be explained by saying that all fiction draws on one's early experiences—is irritating and pointless. Other devices also don't come off: an endlessly repeated motif of a man chasing a boy, for example. Pesetsky, perhaps influenced to go beyond psychological realism by such exciting recent attempts at narrative enlargement as E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, seems not to have known quite what to do with those self-conscious techniques. Nonetheless, she is a serious and skillful writer, and the novel is well worth reading. (p. 739)

Barbara Koenig Quart, "First, the Bad News," in The Nation (copyright 1983 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 236, No. 23, June 11, 1983, pp. 738-39.∗

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