A Cut Above 

The fall of the house of Random? Mehta in the middle, on top

The big news to hit publishing after New Year's -- news big enough for one editor to shout a "holy shit!" when he heard about it -- was the business going down at Random House Inc.

The bottom line: On January 16th, without warning, Peter Olson (Random House chairman) fired Ann Godoff (Random House president/publisher/editor), citing Godoff's failure to deliver the goods: i.e., a long-enough string of best-sellers and the revenue Random House parent company/media conglomerate Bertelsmann was banking on.

So much for Godoff's track record (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Alienist, White Teeth) and so much for Godoff's spending habits. (Three million for rights to The Nanny Diaries, based on three sample chapters. A good bet, it turned out, for what would indeed be a best-seller ... still, 3 million?)

So, in January, Random House, the house that Cerf built, the house that Faulkner called home, went to Gina Centrello, president/publisher/editor at Random House Inc.'s Ballantine division -- Centrello, who can deliver the goods: i.e., a good long string of less than "literary" but profitable hardbacks (see in June: Star Wars: Shatterpoint: A Clone Wars Novel) and a longer string of trade-size and mass-market cash cows in paperback.

So: Godoff's gone (along with some faithful authors?) with no immediate replacement; Centrello's head of a new entity called the "Random House Ballantine Publishing Group"; Ballantine's featured fiction for March is Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by "beloved author" Lorna Landvik (who wrote, you remember, the "sensational sleeper hit" Patty Jane's House of Curl); and the seating chart at 1745 Broadway, Random House Inc.'s new headquarters, has been anybody's guess. As columnist Joe Hagan pointed out on page one of The New York Observer on January 20th, "According to a company newsletter, Random House was to reside on the 16th and 17th floors, Ballantine on the 22nd and 23rd, and Knopf on the 21st."

Knopf: another division of Random House, literally, then, in the middle. Knopf's editor-in-chief: Sonny Mehta, recent star subject of a two-page spread in Vanity Fair, where he sat with star writers Richard Ford and Robert Caro. But something says Mr. Mehta sits where he pleases (screw the no-smoking sign), and here's reason why: four New Year/spring titles to add to Knopf's fine reputation before and under Mehta. They are:

1) Samaritan by Richard Price, about which by this late date so much has been written it's useless to add another two cents, but here they are: If you can find better streetsmart dialogue centered in and around a New Jersey housing project, inside a New Jersey high school, and inside a New Jersey police department, show it. Show Price the money. Movie rights for this hard-boiled, page-turning crime story-slash-multiple-character study: gotta be astronomical. (Ms. Grier? This is casting calling.)

2) Abandon by Pico Iyer, about which I could but would have to stop short saying good things, because I stopped reading one-third the way through, because I happened to open ...

3) Shroud by John Banville and dropped everything. It's about a literary scholar with an international reputation who's also a major alcoholic, tyrant, and fraud. The causes of Alex Vander's eventual unmasking, undoing: A) a madwoman in Turin young enough to be his daughter, old enough to become his lover; B) Vander himself, who isn't "Vander" at all but who is approaching his own unfine madness. Irishman Banville's performance here: "old Europe" at its best: elliptical, foreshadowy, dream-state in intensity. Eggheady? Bite me.

4) The King in the Tree by Steven Millhauser, Pulitzer Prize-winner for Martin Dressler, and here the author of three novellas, the second a new installment on the Don Juan myth, the third a straightforward retelling of Tristan/Ysolt (a retelling even a kid could love), but the first an unnerving house tour conducted by a widow for the "other" woman's (and your) creepy enjoyment. Wondering: Millhauser's "Revenge" will take just how long to show up in creative-writing classrooms?

5) Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson, a thoroughgoing look into and behind the faces in Charles Moore's photo of seven sheriffs on the campus of Ole Miss the week James Meredith sought to become that school's first black student in 1962 -- a book that demands more than this mere mention.

But the abandoned Abandon ... Iyer's protagonist has an interesting thing going as a grad student in search of a secret Islamic manuscript that may or may not contain a lost fragment of Sufi master Rumi's poetry. But this wigged-out California girlfriend he hooks up with ... She's key to some Sufi mystery/manuscript, and she splits the scene, and already I'm wondering if I'm not thinking good riddance. But Iyer's a great essayist, and Mr. Mehta knows good writing. Ann Godoff did too. Pretty sure she still does.

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