Helene Elphrick, the young heroine and narrator of SKIRTS, is an honor student at New York University who has moved to Manhattan from her all-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, much to the alarm and dismay of her conservative parents. Helene is trying to be independent, but she is unsure of herself and is intimidated by the overshadowing inner city. She and her friends, Ruth and Victoria, cling together for moral support.
Ruth is a struggling artist. Victoria is the only one of the three who comes from an affluent family and does not have to worry about the future. Gradually the city pulls the three friends apart as they are drawn toward their separate destinies. Ruth begins accepting more and more favors from men and eventually becomes a prostitute and heroin addict. Helene meets a fascinating young man named Zalman who abandoned his rabbinical studies to become a mediocre artist, drug pusher, and barroom philosopher. He introduces Helene to marijuana and gradually gets her hooked on more destructive drugs, including an assortment of the new mood-altering pills.
Ruth ends up beaten to death in a Harlem hallway where she had gone as Zalman’s drug courier. Helene, stunned by this graphic evidence of the emptiness, wastefulness, and stupidity of the Beatnik lifestyle, breaks free from her fatal attraction to Zalman and decides to pursue a socially useful academic career.
The safety cushion of Victoria’s wealth saves her from being destroyed by the nihilistic Beatnik counterculture with which she had dallied out of curiosity and boredom. She marries a nonentity even wealthier than herself but is obviously destined to lead a life of suffocating self-indulgence without hope of self-realization.
Mimi Albert has been writing fiction and teaching creative writing for many years. Her new novel is obviously autobiographical. She has chosen to write it in the currently fashionable present tense in an apparent attempt to give the material a feeling of freshness and contemporary relevance it might otherwise lack.
SKIRTS is a mature and professional work. It paints an accurate picture of the anarchistic Beatnik movement, with the blind leading the blind to damnation.