Saga of outrages by Zoe Heller

January 09, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff

"Everything You Know," by Zoe Heller. Alfred A. Knopf. 203 pages. $22.

Not since the Bible salesman seduced that amputee girl in the hay loft of Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," perhaps, has there been a more vile wretch than Willy Muller.

And not since O'Connor has a woman writer come along who seems to so thoroughly understand the greasy inner cogs of the male psyche, especially where matters of sex are concerned.

In her delightfully black-hearted first novel, "Everything You Know," Zoe Heller proves that she gets it. Unlike women, who generally equate sex with love and romance, male sexuality is a "pitifully simple mechanism -- the libidinal equivalent of wind-up chattering teeth."

With a yellow eye and an unerring ear for the rhythm of words, Heller sets up one such comic gut punch after another in this laugh-out-loud saga of a middle-aged ex-convict turned wastrel Hollywood screenwriter, philanderer and cardiac case.

The center of her little book is Muller, 55, an expatriate British writer paroled from prison after a manslaughter conviction in the garish death of his wife. Hounded by the London tabloids, he abandons his two young daughters and seeks to re-make his fortune in Los Angeles.

This he does -- O.J. style -- by writing a self-serving memoir about the case, which his agent then packages into a movie deal.

When first Willy is met, he is in a foul mood, recovering from a heart attack in a poorly sanitized hospital attended by large and unattractive nurses in squeaky shoes. He has also just received a bundle of his youngest daughter's diaries in the mail, along with a dispatch informing him that she has committed suicide.

"She did not leave any letters or notes or lipstick scrawls on mirrors to tell everyone why she'd done it," Willy muses blandly. "Just herself, palely loitering on her dirty kitchen floor."

Willy is used to getting bad news by mail, after years of receiving hate-letters and odious packages from people back in England accusing him of getting away with murder and profiting from his wife's death.

"Even though the flow of excrement and other anti-gifts has slacked off somewhat in recent years," he observes wryly. "I still keep a stock of latex gloves in the kitchen for disposing of the odd Valentine's pig-heart or yuletide phial of vomit."

But Willy doesn't let it slow him down.

After flying to a Mexican retreat to work on his screenplay, he cheats on his long-suffering girlfriend by bedding a studio aide half his age -- then schemes to get them both in the sack when his paramour pays a surprise visit and catches them in the act.

Alas, fondest hope is dashed when the younger woman takes to sulking "pale and unhappy as veal."

You just gotta love this guy, right?!

But unlike Manley Pointer of Welty's dispiriting little morality tale -- who trots off with the girl's wooden leg in a suitcase -- Heller grants Willy a shot at redemption in the form of his daughter's diaries.

It leads him to tally all the wrongs he has done to the women in his life and to make a surprise contrition. Coming at the end of such a hearty, hog wallowing celebration of male excess, it is a brilliant subversion.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun. He previously worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald.

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