Kirshenbaum's 'Pure Poetry' -- no off-limits

March 19, 2000|By Jan Winburn | By Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

"Pure Poetry," by Binnie Kirshenbaum. Simon & Schuster. 203 pages. $22.

Lila Moscowitz is a loud-mouthed, neurotic poet who is starved for words but has not lost her appetite for sex, lies or hurtful one-liners. She's not the girl-next-door; she's certainly no man's best friend. And if she is supposed to represent the "modern" woman, God help us. She makes Ally McBeal look deep.

Binnie Kirshenbaum renders Lila, the main character in her novel "Pure Poetry," with flair, humor and a strong voice. The only problem: The character is thoroughly unlikable.

Frazzled by her impending 38th birthday, Lila reviews her life with her ex-husband, the gorgeous Max, who she now pretends is dead, and recalls the first disastrous birthday (at age 1) in a long line of disastrous birthdays.

Writer's block has left her unable to pen the "smut and filth in terza rima" that is her trademark since her breakup with Max. And it was he who came the closest to ending Lila's perfect record for birthday fiascos.

Knowing she was a fan of Edward Hopper (she had once written, and then destroyed, a series of sonnets that attempted to tell the stories Hopper had painted), Max surprised her by taking her to a show of Hopper's work at the Whitney Museum. But when he found Hopper's art "hideous," Lila went ballistic. The insanity ended with her returning home to Max with her beautiful, shoulder-length "black cherry" hair cut to half-inch stubs that stood at attention on her head. (This is one of many twisted allusions to Lila's Jewishness, Max's German heritage and the Holocaust.)

Flashing back and forth beween the past and the present, Lila compares her new boyfriend, Henry, unfavorably to the lost Max. She revisits her childhood and lays all her troubles at the feet of her now-dead mother. And she introduces the reader to her cross-dressing therapist, Leon, who is less capable of soothing Lila's angst than she is of offering him fashion tips.

The dreaded 38th does eventually arrive, and Kirshenbaum at least attempts to make the eccentric Lila reach some kind of epiphany. But by then, the character is so grating, I almost hope to see her suffer.

Throughout the novel is scene after graphic scene recounting Lila's sexual exploitations. Most of these contain language no more artful than a cheap, semi-pornographic romance novel and can not be described in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that while poor Henry is making love to Lila, he remarks on her "grooming" while she takes note of a bald spot on his head and whispers, not-so-lovingly, "Minoxidil."

"Pure Poetry" is purely zany, and Kirshenbaum keeps you reading if only to see whether anything is off-limits. It is not. But the effect is not so much an honest, unsettling story as an unsettling, immature one.

Kirshenbaum is a vivid, entertaining writer. Her depiction of a woman who succeeds at being offensive in every realm of her life is dead-on. But the character of Lila Moscowitz is like the kooky acquaintance whose chutzpah is entertaining for a couple hours at a cocktail party but whose constant presence would drive a teetotaler to the bottle.

Here's hoping that the next time around, the talented Kirshenbaum keeps better company.

I'll drink to that.

Jan Winburn has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years. Enterprise editor at The Sun, she worked at the Hartford Courant and the Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Baltimore.

Pub Date: 03/19/00

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