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Fallen 1980s figure opens up about her eccentric life

Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction

By Tama Janowitz Dey Street Books

304 pages, $25.99

By Susan Wloszczyna

If the name Tama Janowitz rings a bell, you probably were around to witness the rise of the so-called literary Brat Pack of the mid-’80s. These hip young scribes, whose crackling prose captured the ephemeral urban zeitgeist of a decade populated by disaffected denizens and their loaded ambitions, drug habits and artsy pretensions, blossomed into full-blown media celebrities.

The press tended to tether this Barnard grad, who made a splash with her 1986 short story collection “Slaves of New York,” to the rapid-rise fates of two male authors, Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) and Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero”). Their images graced magazine covers and their off-hours exploits found their way onto the society pages while Hollywood quickly turned their breakout books into films.

But unlike McInerney and Ellis, the far more colorful Janowitz was treated as a sort of a kooky cartoon character, a depressive Betty Boop with her mountainous raven mane, pale skin, scarlet lips and thrift-shop wardrobe. She put the “It” in lit as she ran with Andy Warhol’s later-day in-crowd – it helped that she was friends with the advertising director for the pop-art icon’s then-hot Interview magazine -- and she would marry the British curator of Warhol’s estate, Tim Hunt, now her ex, and adopt a daughter. 

However, fame – as it is wont to do – proved fleeting when her follow-up books failed to live up to her early promise and, much like other ’80s sensations such as A Flock of Seagulls and parachute pants, Janowitz’s Warhol-ian 15 minutes in the spotlight appeared to be over.

Fast-forward 30 years and she’s back. At age 59, Ms. J has gotten an extension on her famous-person card with the arrival of “Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction.” Some of her detractors might waggishly suggest that a more apt title might be “Whine,” considering how much time Janowitz spends on recounting her numerous woes, past and present. Yet given the nightmarish descriptions of her immediate family that kick off “Scream,” one can’t begrudge her need to vent too much.

Let’s just say dysfunction has the starring role and glamour is a supporting player, mostly found in chapters devoted to her Warhol era. Consider her octogenarian father, Julian, a rage-filled weed addict and gun nut. He’s also a psychiatrist with a penchant for sleeping with his patients who once urged her to enter a local bar’s wet T-shirt contest when she was 15. He makes her drive several hours to his home just to reveal he is leaving his 200 acres of property in western Massachusetts to her and plans to disown her disagreeable brother, Sam – insisting that she delivers the news to her sibling. Dad ends up disinheriting her as well when she complains about his stockpile of weapons.

As for why Janowitz has been out of the public eye for so long, that is because she moved to Ithaca in 2011 to be near her ailing mother, Phyllis, a former dietitian and single parent who left her philandering husband when her daughter was 10. She would become a published poet and a professor at Cornell University after earning her MFA at age 40. We will later learn of happy earlier moments shared with the woman that Janowitz considered her best friend, such as the summer of 1968 when they visited Israel. Or their ritual of reading at night at a table together while eating tuna sandwiches. But our initial introduction involves whisking her dementia-suffering mother –injured after a fall – out of her ramshackle abode that has, as we are told, “feces everywhere.” After a health aide suddenly quits, Janowitz puts her in a nursing home. That earns her plenty of scorn from her brother’s wife, who is miles away in Alabama.

Obviously, the author has become a voice of a different generation – baby boomers who find themselves being caretakers but often without the funds or knowledge to easily do so. Even though I appreciate Janowitz’s often inelegant yet darkly humorous and bluntly conversational style of writing, I was not exactly in the mood to deal with her family issues. But then she quickly won me over with her description of her lone getaway spot in the wilds of upstate New York – a supermarket. One whose signs that list the contents of each aisle nearly drove her insane. Such as the separation of “hot cereal” and “cold cereal” in Aisle 7. And that “insecticides” are located in Aisle 3 alongside “cold beer” and “imported beer,” although just plain ‘beer” is in Aisle 12. That she provides photographic evidence is a nice touch.

Janowitz eventually became accustomed to her life in Schuyler County near the Finger Lakes where “preservatives” and Cheez Doodles are dietary mainstays and outdoor sports include hunting and snowmobiling.

She even briefly fell for her rustic contractor (“He’s all muscles and tattoos and wears T-shirts that advertise motor oil or say things like DEAD DEER WALKING”).

About the glamour. I have to say I most enjoyed the vicarious pleasure I experienced reading about Janowitz’s youthful exploits such as when she spent her junior year of college in London in 1976 and ran into the Sex Pistols at a club. Or when she decided to simply drop in on 60-something British author Lawrence Durrell (“The Alexandria Quartet”) in Paris after sending him a note and actually stayed in his house for a while. She even went to the famed Studio 54, though she admits, “I never really liked it,” and hung out with Lou Reed and his then-wife, Sylvia, but resented the fact they had money. As for Warhol, he comes off as distant yet generous in many ways. Her sharpest observation about him: “He wanted to appear like an onion, many layers but all exactly the same.”

Janowitz eventually returns to her upstate New York travails – she has been described as a “magnet for calamity” – and an incident that involves an exploding trailer epitomizes her bad luck. But, after wading through the vagaries of what happens when you suddenly find fame but not that much fortune while seated at dinner parties besides American royalty like Caroline Kennedy or rubbing elbows with the likes of Joan Rivers or David Bowie, I felt more sympathy for Janowitz. Especially since she freely admits she brings much of her misery on herself. But I always root for survivors, and she definitely shows all the signs of being one. As she says of her literary output: “I spent my whole life wanting to be “liked,” except in my writing. My writing, I wanted to be unlikable – but I even wanted to be liked for writing unlikable stuff.”

Susan Wloszczna is a former film writer for USA Today and currently reviews films for the Roger Ebert website.

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