Living to write about it proves to be best revenge for Zigman Author: The paybacks keep rolling in for this novelist who has been deserted and discouraged enough for any woman.

January 08, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Laura Zigman's first novel has barely started showing up in bookstores and there are already signs that the cow thing might be getting out of hand.

People have given her cow keychains, cow figurines, even cow pills (to bring out the heifer within, says the label). Washingtonian magazine took her out to the USDA dairy, where she posed with a freshly washed cow. A papier-mache bull, a gift from the building manager, straddles a painted bookcase in her Pottery Barn-perfect apartment. She's going to draw the line, she says. Somewhere, sometime. Soon.

But it's not only cornball cow-bull tchotchkes that people bring these days to Zigman, 35. With the much-heralded publication of "Animal Husbandry" (Dial Press, $22.95), women come to Zigman with their cow stories, too. These, she can't get enough of. Bring her your tired, bovine heart, your story of driving aimlessly past his house 40 times a day and rifling through his wallet. She's been there, she's done that. She'll see your lunacy and raise you 20 Prozacs.

For, as "Animal Husbandry" states early on: "Nothing makes another Old Cow cry more than a good Old-Cow story. Their Old-Cow story."

Old-Cow story? If you've been dumped, my dear, you've got one. Consider the Zigman acquaintance who dated a man for six, eight months -- right up until he sent out invitations for his wedding to another woman. Very Old Cow indeed. Then there's the woman whose boyfriend announced he was moving to Guatemala while she was gamely gumming down the chicken fried steak he had insisted on, heedless of her recent wisdom tooth extraction. (Wait, never mind. That's, um, another Laura's Old-Cow story.)

"I'm like a bad, cheesy talk show host," Zigman says cheerfully. "I really want to know."

Zigman's Old Cow/New Cow theory -- actually, a former boss' theory, inspired by the so-called Coolidge Effect, which detailed bulls' need for novelty in the mating process -- would seem to be as old as time itself. As in, men want you until they have you. In "Animal Husbandry," the feckless, faithless Ray convinces Jane to be his mate, then decides he's just not ready. But he does want to be friends. Alas, she's already given up her apartment, a crisis situation in New York.

Isn't this really the Old Pig theory? As in: "Men are "

No, not really, Zigman protests. She's not a man-basher. She likes men. She dates men. One day, she hopes to marry a man, assuming "Animal Husbandry" doesn't torpedo her dating career. But being dumped is a universal experience. A universal experience that happens to be different for women.

"When women get dumped, the guy spirals upward," she says. "He gets a great job. He doesn't get fat. He doesn't lose his hair. You just feel like such a loser."

Yes, every woman has an Old-Cow story to tell. Zigman just happened to turn hers into a cash cow.

Calling roll of revenge

There are those who will tell you that revenge is bad business. It dims your aura, damages your karma and warps your perspective. Yet Bartlett's features far more pro-revenge quotations than cautionary ones. Consider:

"Revenge is a dish best served cold." Check -- Zigman began her book more than five years ago, attacking it in fits and starts until she left New York for Washington in December 1995.

"Living well is the best revenge." Nice apartment, BMW, no more day job, foreign rights sold to 14 countries, movie deal -- check again.

"Revenge is sweet, especially to women." That's Lord Byron, writing in "Don Juan," of course. Half-check. Men have been known to hurl a few small stones at their romantic pasts. Philip Roth, for example, has examined his first marriage -- and first wife -- from several angles.

But women may do it more often -- and better. Erica Jong's Isadora Wing has a marital history strikingly similar to her creator. Terry McMillan was sued by an ex-boyfriend, who claimed the boyfriend in one of her books resembled him down to the choice of cereal. (He lost.) Joyce Maynard fictionalized her relationship with J.D. Salinger in "Baby Love" long before she announced her intention to go for the memoir gold.

And almost 20 years ago, another 30-something New Yorker transplanted to Washington turned her husband's infidelity into a novel. The book was "Heartburn," by Nora Ephron, chiefly notable for 1) its fettucine alla cecca recipe and 2) its reference to the Carl Bernstein-inspired husband as a man who could have sex with a Venetian blind.

Zigman has never read "Heartburn." And, in the end, her revenge trajectory is markedly different. For one thing, however painful her heartbreak, it was not written up in gossip columns.

For another, the legal department of Dial Press would like to stress that the faithless, feckless Ray of "Animal Husbandry" is not based on any one individual. So when Zigman tells Washingtonian, "I am so over him," she presumably means, "I am so over them."

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