PRINT December 1992


Brian D'Amato's Beauty

IN BRIAN D’AMATO’S BEAUTY, it is difficult to determine whether the author’s constant citation of people and products is simple name-dropping or a way of getting at something distinctive about his characters. This is a novel-as-gossip-column, in which the pages are crowded with high-fashion models, movie stars, art world aficionados, renowned literary theorists, and Yale professors. The difference between D’Amato and, say, Michael Musto of The Village Voice is that the celebrities in D’Amato’s writing don’t appear in boldface type. But their names occur just as frequently. Perhaps this is meant to lend verisimilitude to a story that takes place largely in Lower Manhattan, in artists’ lofts and SoHo galleries, with, of course, a side trip to Mexico to visit the Mayan ruins.

This roman à clef crossed with outtakes from Inside Edition and clippings from Vanity Fair strains above all to be up-to-the-minute. Its tone is not just trendy but high-mindedly so, evincing tastes and inclinations that are esthetically, rather than merely politically, correct. The action concerns Jamie Angelo, a successful artist still undiscovered by the media. His shows (at a gallery resembling Mary Boone’s) generate cash, but no renown. Angelo, whose passion is Renaissance portraiture, has learned to apply his classical virtuosity to a sideline business in an even bigger glamour industry, cosmetic reenhancement. Working with a couple of buddies from Yale, he develops a procedure not unlike the one Bruce Willis practices as a hack cosmetic technician in the Robert Zemeckis movie Death Becomes Her—he repaints ravaged faces.

Or, rather, he reupholsters them. Not a plastic surgeon but a portrait artist and demon dermatologist, he strips imperfect skin from actresses and models and replaces it with plastic, on which he paints his masterpieces. The novel turns Bride of Frankenstein when Angelo convinces his performance-artist girlfriend, Jaishree, to let him redesign her face. Superimposing an image of ideal beauty on her already lovely features, Angelo simultaneously creates a supermodel and, of course, the instrument of his own demise. For one of his collaborators has been tinkering with Angelo’s materials, and the result (which Angelo first notices in a former client’s appearance on David Letterman) is catastrophic.

Unfortunately, the plot synopsis reads somewhat better than the book. Beauty is apparently intended as satire, but its author does not have sufficient distance from his protagonist. Angelo narrates the novel in a flat tone that may be meant to suggest his shallowness. But too often the shallowness seems to be D’Amato’s. Lines like “We’ll never come up with anything truly new under the sun,” on the differences between Mexican and American culture, are offered not as satiric remarks but as cogent observations. In a meditation on Hollywood, Angelo suggests. “If people wanted their movies to be believable, they’d cast them with unknowns.” D’Amato offers this (and similar conjectures) as a scintillating insight.

Paradoxically, a novel whose subject is beauty fails to offer a single shimmering sentence. It seems, after all, that D’Amato is incapable of rising above his characters’ banality. Luckily his thumbnail sketches of easily identifiable art-world figures provide comic relief. Mary Boone’s stand-in, Karen Goode, is described as having “the smile of a crocodile in couture.” And there are equally knowing references to characters who distinctly resemble Leo Castelli and Larry Gagosian, named, respectively, Nino Fortreza and Jerry Davidian.

D’Amato’s style is essentially one of assemblage. But the result is not a refreshing juxtaposition of classical and contemporary images and ideas, it’s a cataloguelike collection of well-known names and phenomena. If anything in this novel resonates, it is the glamour and power inherent in the references the author chooses, like “Leonardo,” “Mona Lisa,” “Vermeer,” “Poussin,” and, inevitably, “Cher.”

John Weir is a writer living in New York. His most recent book is The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket.


Beauty, by Brian D’Amato. New York: Delacorte Press. 343 pp. $20.