Christopher Buckley, who I generally trust, positively raves on the back of Ted Heller’s Slab Rat so when I spotted it at a discount bookstore recently I picked up. Of course maybe Buckley, whose dad is a famous writer, was extra-sympathetic to Heller, whose dad is a famous author. Regardless, the younger Buckley calls Slab Rat “a wickedly nifty debut by a young writer of mature comic talent.” So, you are thinking to yourself at this point, what did Kevin think of it?
Well, that is a good question. The book is a sort of black comedy about life in the New York magazine publishing world. The main character, Zachary Arlen Post, is a phoney. He passes himself off as having all the right social and educational connections: son of an architect; studies at Colgate, Berkeley, and Liverpool; excellent golfer; etc. In reality, Allen Zachary Post is a ambitious but rather lazy son of a blue collar family from Queens. Zach’s nemesis, Mark Larkin, appears to be the real thing – a Harvard educated go-getter. Soon Mark is moving up the ranks with alarming speed and leaving Zach behind. Zach is also trying to juggle things in his personal life, pursuing two different women who couldn’t be more different.
The story basically follows Zach as he tries to maneuver himself to the top without expending too much energy. Along the way the manipulations and falsehoods pile up. Zach, and his friend and co-worker, Willie Lester develop a bitter hatred of the newcomer Larkin. Zach’s complete lack of ethics or morality combined with Lester’s growing mental instability add up to trouble and dark plot twists. Zach’s plotting at work is balanced by his inability to get his relationships straight. His complete lack of honesty, coupled with his determination to use his relationships to further his station in life – not to mention his lack of sexual control – all lead to ugly results. His life seems to be spinning out of control.
The entire story really is ridiculous, but giving the bizarre headlines these days – and not having worked in the publishing industry in New York – it is hard for me to judge the level of plausibility. Not that the story has to be realistic to be enjoyable but a parody or dark comedy has power relative to its core of truth or reality; an exaggerated sense of truth but true nonetheless. I think this is where Slab Rat breaks down a bit. It as if Heller tried to cram as much caricature and dark humor into the story as he could. The plotting against Larkin is rather interesting and the inner-office backstabbing and gossip provides a backdrop for the larger story. This setting also provides a rich source of caricature and humor. Heller captures the shallow and ugly underbelly of corporate office competition. But he adds more and more complications. Zach’s pursuit of the English ice queen and the lowly but connected intern AND another co-worker with which he has had a torrid sexual affair seems pointless to me; unless it is to further convey his lack of any conscience.
And that brings out another fault, the lack of any sympathetic character. I suppose you might care about the tragedy of Willie Lester but the guy is so off the deep end that it is hard to feel anything but pity. Practically every character in the book is simply an opportunity for dark humor, satire, and tragedy. This makes the book seem rather empty in the end. Speaking of the ending, forgive my moralism but is it good when the a complete lack of morals and conscience wins?
These negatives aside, the book was quite funny in places. If you enjoy black comedy and brutal social satire, you would probably enjoy it. The closer you are to the corporate, big city, and overly ambitious world that Heller is skewering, the more you will likely enjoy the satire. Those whose taste run towards cynical and bleak will find the lack of moral character or compassion easier to forgive. Those who need a character they can root for might be have a hard time enjoying the story. All in all I found it a dark, biting, and entertaining comedy but an ultimately unsatisfying one.