Slab Rat

MANY JOURNALISTS have one burning desire: to write the great American novel and forget all the sophomoric bullshit they're forced by the nature of their job to grind out on a weekly or monthly basis. If that doesn't work, many try for their other prominent option: to expose the grimy underbelly of their particular profession and come up with a quick best-seller. It may not be as illustrious, but it's probably a hell of a lot more fun for writer and reader alike.

Slab Rat

by Ted Heller (Scribner, $23)

So count Slab Rat, the first novel by Ted Heller, a former Details and Vanity Fair photo editor who's currently a senior writer for Nickelodeon magazine, in the latter category. And count it as perfect high-minded trash: a roman ࠣlef about his days at some of the most notoriously behind-the-scenes-backbiting glossies in the magazine kingdom.

Slab Rat is narrated by Zack Post, an assistant editor at It magazine, the top-selling title of Versailles Publishing's (read: Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone publisher Cond頎ast) chain, whose half-assed ambitions receive a jolt when It hires Mark Larkin, a snotty brown-noser who quickly ascends the magazine's ranks. If Post is miffed, his colleague, Willie Lister, is obsessed. A writer whose talent far outstrips that of his colleagues, Willie sees Larkin as evil incarnate and wants his head on a platter. Zack, meanwhile, just tries to keep his head above water, though his infatuation with both an upper-class Englishwoman in the art department and a sweet-natured intern (who happens to be the daughter of Versailles' CEO) doesn't help.

So, right, this is a Jackie Collins novel set in the real world. What sets Slab Rat apart from its lowbrow kin is Heller's sharp style. Just about any page will pull you in, and he's got a real knack for comic detail, such as Zack's fate upon writing a negative review of a book that ends up nominated for the National Book Award: He's forced to interview the taciturn author for a feature article. ("Is there a constant theme running through your work?" he asks the Cormac McCarthy-esque writer. "Life is tough, and don't step in the cowshit," the writer replies.) Though the plot is easily predictable (Guess who Zack ends up with? Guess what happens to Mark Larkin?), Heller keeps things moving along quickly enough that you don't even notice.

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