BANK NOTES

First-time author Melissa Bank offers wildlife tips from her Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Melissa Bank is the literary It Girl this summer. Her first collection of stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, has received the attention of the New York Times and a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A generous review from Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker made the obvious comparison to last summer's It Girl, Helen Fielding, the writer of Bridget Jones's Diary, then blithely, and accurately, disregarded the comparison as superficial. Vogue picked Girls' Guide from a refreshing group of recent short-fiction collections (including Annie Proulx's Close Range and Gish Jen's Who's Irish? — better, and more appropriate, company for Bank to be keeping than Bridget Jones).

Besides the Bridget Jones analogies and a what-do-single-women-want? angle, the other theme that has followed Bank and Girls' Guide this summer has been "$275,000 advance" — not a phenomenal sum in the larger scheme of entertainment dollars (imagine what the guys who concocted the handheld hijinks of The Blair Witch Project are being offered for their next film), but enough to raise eyebrows and court envy in literary circles. Fame is one thing, but money combined with sudden fame brings out the worst in others. For example, Vince Passaro, a contributing editor for Harper's, in an overview of recent American short fiction in the August issue, gives Bank a snide footnote, which she heard for the first time during the RFT interview in the bar of the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton on the final stop of her book tour: "Recently two writers, Nathan Englander and Melissa Bank, received substantial advances (Bank's was $275,000) and publicity for their first collections. They are moderately talented, good-looking, young, and Englander, at least, a former Orthodox Jew now gone secular, has an interesting life story to tell on his book tour. There is always room in the marketing machine for these kinds of writers."

"Moderately talented!" Bank exclaims with a combination of feigned, and real, anguish. "Good-looking," she then says perkily. She pauses, sighs, more than slightly nonplused. "I'm glad he didn't say we were moderately talented and very, very ugly." Then Bank vents, being both funny and caustic in just the way she was instructed not to be during her pre-tour "media training." "Well, Vince, fuck you. You just keep writing in the little fucking Harper's magazine. Take your little advances and run."

She feels better now, but only a little. "I don't know what to say except "Ouch.' One of the strange things about being a first-time author with a big advance and a lot of publicity is that you're not treated as a first-time author. You're treated in an unfair way. It hurts. It's a very strange thing, going from a private person to a public person."

Even after being served the Passaro dish, Bank looks as if she's handling the adjustment well. It's the end of a two-month tour, and after her reading and signing at Left Bank Books she's flying home to New York City that evening. A month's vacation in Sag Harbor is next on the itinerary. Isn't that where Spalding Gray lives? "I've seen him in the grocery store, disputing the change he was given," Bank says.

She a beach-lover, she says, and it shows. She's easy to spot in the Ritz lobby, the sun-kissed one amidst a small platoon of pale-faced Brits — the orchestra accompanying the Three Irish Tenors has arrived. After a table of them ogle Bank's bronze thigh from afar, uttering base guttural sounds as they do, "Three Irish Pigs" seems more appropriate.

Bank, in the perfect little black dress, seems to have achieved the air of grace and sophistication that her alter ego and central protagonist in Girls' Guide, Jane Rosenal, longs to have. From the first story in the collection — which introduces Jane as a too-smart-for-her-own-good 14-year-old, the kind of observant, wise and witty child Salinger might have created — to the concluding title story, in which Jane is a mature woman attempting a The Rules-like prescription for courtship, Jane is enchanted, and overwhelmed, by beautiful people. In the opening story, there is Jane's brother's first serious girlfriend joining the family on the Jersey shore, looking as cool as "Audrey Hepburn relaxing after dance class." In the next story, Jane is an adult with a boyfriend of her own, who takes her for an awkward vacation in the Caribbean to visit his ex-girlfriend and her current love interest. She, Jane observes, is "turn-and-stare gorgeous — big dark eyes, long dark hair, smooth dark skin." In one of the non-Jane stories in the book, "The Best Possible Light," a family holds an impromptu reunion. In Bank's prose, they seemed as charmed as the clan that includes Blythe and Gwyneth.

The "good-looking" Bank acknowledges that the beauty myth has been an influence on her life and art. "Most women grow up desperately wanting to be beautiful," she says. "It's not different now, I think, than it was 100 years ago. From the first story you read as a child, it's a beautiful princess — it's not an interesting-looking princess. And there's an ugly witch that gets hers.

"I grew up captivated by beautiful women like they had something. Beautiful people and the idea that your life would be easier — there's a point in the story where Jane says that her mother felt it was very important for them to look good while her father was dying. It was almost like a superstition. If you looked good enough, everything would turn out OK. It's some notion of being blessed."

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