A call girl's stored-up sadness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 1998, 12:00am

GOING DOWN by Jennifer Belle, Virago, $170 Despite the title, Going Down is definitely going up. A first novel by an unknown writer whose former existence includes a week working on a telephone sex line, this account of the day-to-day life of a call girl took a great leap into the glitz the weekend Madonna called its 29-year-old author and said she wanted the film rights.

Madonna was apparently fascinated not only by the lifestyle, the story and the relationship between money and sex as described by Belle's heroine Bennington Bloom, but by some uncanny coincidences between this fictitious story and her own life.

Not only did they come from similarly dysfunctional families, in similarly dysfunctional apartments, but at the end of the book Bloom takes a temporary job checking coats in the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street. Madonna did that job, although history does not relate whether she too got cheated of her tips.

One might suggest Belle had planned it that way. She says Madonna's was not the first film offer, it was just the best.

This is not really an erotic book. Despite the risque title, it has little in common with the black lacy novella numbers you see on the bottom shelf of airport bookshops.

There is something vilely humorous about Going Down and its story of Bennington Bloom, a middle-class drama student who is in some ways a very normal 19-year-old - except of course that she is a hooker.

She did not quite plan to be. Bennington - supposedly most girls born that year in America were called Bennington - asks optimistically whether there is an escort job that does not involve sex but earns lots of money when she answers an advert seeking students wanting easy cash.

When the answer is no, she still puts on her red cocktail dress and makes her way to the Chelsea Hotel for the interview, or audition.

At first you think this is going to be one of those naive-in-New-York stories. But Bloom is, from the beginning of her journey into the city's pay-for-sex underworld, strangely canny.

She might have grown up in an apartment with 29 windows and her own ballet barre, but her parents divorced early. Her father and his new wife liked to grow marijuana and name each plant, like some couples get a pet in preparation for having children. But they did not really want the children who had already been born, so at 16 she ran away to Washington Square Park to join the former Vietnam crazies.

'Everyone had a nickname and mine was Jailbait,' she says.

When she meets a new boyfriend, she checks out the medicine cabinet, sending a sample of unlabelled yellow pills to a lab for analysis.

The book's realism is very unmagical. Nothing touches Bloom - on her psychiatrist's couch she practises voice exercises while she makes up her feelings; at the brothel she lies back and thinks of dollars: ' 'Want to go again?' I asked. I liked to ask the ones over 40 if they wanted to do it again.' ' This is a 1990s existentialist novel, where almost everyone is incapable of feelings, only of observations. Belle's intention to create a world like that of Camus in The Outsider is explicitly signalled in her choice of name of the man, Camus, whom our heroine meets when she returns briefly to her college dorm. His girlfriend has just killed herself; his main reaction is annoyance that her roommate automatically gets A grades while he is the one who suffers.

This is, somehow, a world with neither affection nor a sense of deprivation. The girls are not Suzie Wongs - there is no myth-making about their gentle-heart-of-gold-ness. They are depicted as ordinary working girls, worrying about the rent and thinking about their school tests as they fold the bed sheets.

Belle shows herself to be a mistress of surreal juxtaposition, not only in the description of the escorting but in her sense of the crazy dispossessed of New York.

She describes her characters and locations with a sharp observation and little sentimentality to create an atmosphere that - when it becomes a film - will be grey rather than white, blue rather than pink. This is a book apparently without any moralising, but those messages of despair are not far from the surface. It is full of the little details of desperation: the little brother packing and unpacking his teddy bear every week, or the fact that when she left home, Bennington's things fitted into a dozen Chiquita-brand banana boxes from the supermarket.

Apart from the Russian Tea Room incident, perhaps the element of stored-up sadness is what appealed to Madonna.