The Ghostwriter's Story
New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 27, 1983


by Bette Pesetsky.
198 pp. New York: Knopf. $12.95.

THE WORLD IS DIVIDED between those who actually do the work and those who try to get the credit, Lord Chesterfield advised his son. Try to be in the former group, he said, because there is much less competition. Whatever charm this advice may have held in the 1700s, it has little appeal to today's women, and still less to the legions of ghostwriters who each year churn out books and articles for a growing assortment of celebrities, generals, statesmen. Hardly a season passes without some heretofore mute, inglorious Milton going public with disgruntlement at having to make a living by putting words into the mouths of boobs and pooh-bahs.

Naturally, the condition of ghostwriters has not been overlooked in modern fiction, either. But no one so far has tried what Bette Pesetsky gets away with in this savage, funny small novel - that is, using ghostwriting as a metaphor to dramatize the view that women do most of the work of creation while men (unfairly) get most of the credit. Happily, the author does not huff and puff about it. Her book is a model of brevity and wit, her plot, pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. But the story is suitably studded with domestic details that give it a grainy edge of realism, like all those saws, hammers and faithful pets that Daniel Defoe provides to make you believe in Robinson Crusoe's island adventure.

Mrs. Pesetsky's protagonist is May Alto, first seen in the Emergency Room of a Manhattan hospital after her arm has been slashed by a pair of young muggers. May is rather a tough cookie, with three children and two ex-husbands. She is also an ace cook, when she wants to be.She lovingly controls her kids with whims of irony Against the cowardly advice of her friends (''Who will want you at this age?''), she has tossed out her second husband, a handsome loser named Harry, rather than put up with his casual adultery. When Harry first told her about the other woman, May was prepared. ''Four friends had been in similar circumstances,'' she reflects. ''He tells you, you cry, he cries. Never, he promises. And then for a long time you carefully check the clock, the calendar, who is where.'' None of that for May. ''Out!'' she says. And changes the lock on the apartment.

Most of all, as Virginia Woolf (''A Room of One's Own'') and James M. Barrie (''The Twelve Pound Look'') reminded everybody before Equal Pay for Equal Work was dreamed of, a woman is strong because she is financially independent. For years May has been a successful ghostwriter. Now, though, as her wounded arm suppurates and she feverishly copes with her children and Harry - who turns up now and then in hopes of getting dinner or a small loan - May is into blackmail.

Her pigeon is a smoothie named Quayle. Handsome, quasi-academic, a talk show personality, he is the author of two books, ''Permissible Love Play'' and ''Eine Leerstelle.'' May wrote ''Eine Leerstelle'' for him, and, largely because of it, Quayle has just been awarded the Nobel Prize. May threatens to expose him unless he gives her all the prize money. At first he blusters, speaks of mere background research, says she can't prove anything. Then he comes to heel, offering $25,000. May refuses. A whole series of scenes, meetings, threats and phone calls ensue.

Eine Leerstelle means an empty space. The words are used in German, when one gives dictation, to be sure a space is left between words or lines. Wisely Mrs. Pesetsky keeps the book's real subject vague, though it is still hard to accept, even in fantasy, that the insignificant Quayle could have won the Nobel Prize. He does not, after all, come from some tiny socialist country above the timberline. Mrs. Pesetsky is more convincing about the details of May's ghostwriting trade. May is a tiger for research (before ghosting a new biography of Balzac she rereads the entire ''Comédie humaine''), but she finds most clients hardly glance through the finished product. Their concern is just that the books give them the kind of image they ask for: A banker would like a family history that links his name with significant banking families in 18th-and 19th-century Europe; a Congressman needs a new and more appropriate childhood for his autobiography. And so May begins writing what she wants, readjusting history with changed dates, invented scenes, imaginary footnotes, new anecdotes. And, as she explains to Quayle, into each book that she ghosts, as a sign of scorn and a kind of name tag, she somehow stitches in the same three characters: her mother, Sonya, a trampishvampish aunt named Giselle and Trasker, ''a sort of'' uncle.

There is a running joke, evolving from May's feverish fantasy, that her ghosting gradually extends to most of Western literature. In this outrageous game that goes on in May's mind, Aunt Giselle turns up in a biography, offering herself to the amorous young munitions king, Alfred Nobel, if only he will establish a Peace Prize. And there is a creative cross-reference to ''A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'' when Sonya offers the narrator cherry strudel: ''The narrator stamped his foot. 'Madeleines,' he insisted.''

Long before this, May and the reader have faced the fact that where Quayle is concerned, money is not enough. ''Wasn't the fame also mine?'' she fumes. She wants scenes in which Quayle will quail before her, revenge for a lifetime of being slighted. Quayle has a sumptuous office; she writes on a steel-legged table in an alcove. Her husbands, both of whom she supported at her typewriter, habitually referred to her writing as ''Mother's work, like a hobby.''

THERE are fine moments, suitable for framing in a feminist cartoon strip entitled ''Dreams of Glory.'' May, at lunch with Quayle, spurning a shopping bag in which he has brought $25,000 in cash. May in the kitchen, being called by Quayle, who is now half mad with anxiety, desperate to come to terms somehow. ''Could you call back later,'' she says, ''I have to prepare a cream filling.'' (This is the equivalent, one supposes, of the line: ''Patience, my dear, I'll kiss you after I finish my cigar.'')

Some lines are purest Bombeck. ''How can you plan a crime while frying bacon, being careful to make it thoroughly crisp with no soft, moist edges?'' The rueful rites and wrongs of women in New York, caught in the crossruff between what their mothers believed in and what the middle-class world has come to, are by now an overworked literary sandbox. Mrs Pesetsky has established her own turf, however. She uses parody to save time, like the prisoners in that famous joke who know all their own stories so well that they give them numbers, to speed things up, but laugh at the end just the same. There is also a glint of grim Nabokovian playfulness, and a thread of cruelty that suggests Humbert Humbert gleefully stalking Quilty at the end of ''Lolita.'' As in her recent short story collection, ''Stories Up to a Point,'' the author makes you read, she makes you laugh. She is a literary sharpshooter, small calibered, perhaps, but with a high muzzle velocity, who does not like to waste a single shot.