Shopping Satire With Sitcom Depth

I'LL TAKE IT by Paul Rudnick, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pp., $18.95

REMEMBER when people were ashamed of being middle-class and materialistic? When artsy students (and dropouts) were embarrassed by the bourgeois taste and manners of their parents? When newly fledged radicals berated the hapless sources of their allowances as ``capitalist pigs?''

No, it wasn't fair and it wasn't very nice. Yes, there was a lot of empty posturing. But there was something intrinsically healthy about the desire for independence. Perhaps it's the utter lack of any such desire that makes reading about 26-year-old Joe Reckler, his doting mother, and his lovable aunts such a cloying experience. The closest comparison that comes to mind is a long ride in a car with relatives, but in this case, it's no mere metaphor - this novel is actually about a long ride in a car with relatives.

Reckler, his mother, Hedy, and Hedy's sisters, Aunt Pola and Aunt Ida, love to shop. They are ``artists'' when it comes to getting the highest-quality merchandise for the lowest possible price.

Hedy has always been the family rebel, according to Pola and Ida. In shopping, too, she has ventured a lot further: Where her sisters are content to look for bargains at discount stores and factory outlets, Hedy secretly shoplifts.

Joe is very much his mother's son. A proud graduate of Yale (where he eschewed courses in ``calculus, biochemistry, or obscure foreign languages, such as French'' in favor of seminars on musical theater, screwball comedy, and the like), Joe tells people he's a struggling Manhattan artist, but in fact he has no interest in art: Shopping is his first love (followed by junk food), and he makes his living as a pickpocket. His idea of fun is to accompany his mother and aunts on a shopping jaunt through New England, which culminates in a visit to the famous store, L.L. Bean, which Hedy plans to rob at gunpoint in order to get enough money to redecorate her living room.

The real target of Rudnick's satire is not acquisitiveness, but those who profess to disdain it, like old-money New England WASPs who prefer a few ``classic'' items to a nouveau riche closet full of shoes and designer dresses. There would seem to be no reason why a writer like Rudnick should not raise the banner of middle-class materialists and show them as being ``nicer'' than common thieves, ``warmer'' and more ``genuine'' than the upper-crust descendents of robber barons. But this novel is so suffused in the syrupy glow of self-satisfaction as to endow the old phrase ``smug complacency'' with a new reason to go on living.

Rudnick has a good ear for dialogue and an eye for the manners and mores of the milieu he's chosen to depict. He manages to hit precisely the tone he means to: a sliver of satire muffled up in cotton-wool layers of cuteness and lovability.

Novelist Susan Isaacs, in her review of the book, has rightly located it in the same ``frothy family fiction genre'' as Patrick Dennis's ``Auntie Mame.'' But even judged by such a standard, ``I'll Take It'' seems trivial and far too pleased with itself for us to take much pleasure in it.

The category of ``frothy family fiction'' this book most resembles is the television sitcom. At times, the plot is so thin as to slip from situation comedy into the monotony of a meandering chain of stand-up comic routines. By any strict reckoning, ``I'll Take It'' is scarcely a novel at all, and the fact that it has been published and promoted as one probably says more about the vacuity of the current New York cultural-literary scene than a scad of jeremiads against conspicuous consumption.

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