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For every back, a knife
Truth merges with fiction in a new roman à clef about Condé Nast that has New York insiders buzzing.

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By Sean Elder

Feb. 2, 2000 | There is a long and illustrious tradition of journalism novels, stories set in and around magazines and newspapers, and small wonder. Many writers of fiction have done time as journalists, often vowing to skewer the whole sorry racket once they get out of there.

It is a genre that includes Balzac's "Lost Illusions" and Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," one characterized by sardonic humor and a kind of world-weary point of view. These books are often freshman efforts; both William Kennedy's "The Ink Truck" and Hunter Thompson's "Rum Diaries" were resurrected after the authors' fame was secured with other writing. They are often romans à clef as well, and part of the reader's enjoyment lies in trying to discern the real-life counterparts of the book's characters. (Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," set in a magazine much like the New Yorker, where the author toiled as a fact-checker, offered stand-ins for William Shawn and William Maxwell; Dawn Powell's "A Time to Be Born" featured a society dame modeled on Clare Booth Luce.)

"Slab Rat," the debut novel of Ted Heller, is true to its school, limning Condé Nast and its flagship publications, with a knowing air (the author worked as a photo editor at Details and Vanity Fair), a nudge and a wink. But anyone planning on connecting the dots between the satire and the satirized may be disappointed. Though some characters bear a marked resemblance to real people (Vogue editor Anna Wintour, CN's late creative director, Alexander Liberman), most are composites. (A fashion crone, for instance, dismissed unceremoniously after years of service to "Versailles Publishing," plays like a cross between former Vogue chief Grace Mirabella and Glamour's late longtime editor, Ruth Whitney.)

Likewise for the magazines parodied within. Zachary Post, the book's narrator, is an associate editor at It, Versaille's magazine of the moment. In content, It is a ringer for VF, though its staff structure sounds suspiciously like Vogue's. And the snobbery and one-upmanship that permeates the book are portrayed as systemic and company-wide.

"It's important at Versailles to not be impressed by anything or anyone," Post confides early on, and such affect is certainly part of Condé Nast's aura. Even in relatively jaded New York publishing circles there is a fascination with the company and its doings that defies logic. Sure, they've got the titles and the perks are legendary (as are the beheadings). The company's new building on Times Square was a figure of much fun in years past. (The fancy Italian filing cabinets, bought en masse, reportedly weren't sized correctly to hold American file folders; those overseeing the building design had forgot to plan for a freight elevator and so on.)

But this was more than garden-variety jealousy. Outsiders seem to dig the very cut-throat ambience they imagine (quite rightly) to exist within its walls. There's something very Roman about all that in-fighting and back-stabbing, and reading about the company's doings can be as entertaining as watching an episode of "I, Claudius." Not for nothing do they call the employees "Condé Nasties."

I spoke to several people who worked with Heller when he was at Details -- or shall I say, were there at the same time he was. Because, fittingly, most don't remember him. He wasn't on the radar because he wasn't big enough to worry about and, in classic "Upstairs, Downstairs" fashion, the help often have the best view of the upper class's failings.

And "Slab Rat" is all about class. Post hails from Massapequa, Long Island; his mother keeps books for Tip Top Togs, his father owns a pool-cleaning business called the Wet Guy. In order to succeed at Versailles he reinvents a résumé that includes education abroad and semi-famous parentage.

With this Gatsby touch of self-creation and class-denial, "Slab Rat" tips its hat to both the "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" school of '50s corporate comedies (in which characters will literally kill to get ahead) and the John Hughes genre of teen-angst comedies. (Townie at elite school sells soul to be with the anointed only to discover that real happiness lies in being who you are.)

. Next page | Life is tough, and don't step in the cowshit

Illustration by Zach Trenholm

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