BEHIND THE BEST SELLERS; 'PREPPY HANDBOOK' by Dudley Clendinen, NYTimes, 4 January 1981
Last spring, Jonathan Roberts was 25 years old, a graduate of the Cambridge School in Boston and Brown, a funny young man who wanted to write. ''Usually, people tell you to write what you know,'' he says. ''For years, I thought - 'What do I know? I'm just a Preppy.'''
Then he thought again and confided his idea for a book to three Preppy friends, all single, clever, mid-twentyish and residents of Manhattan: Lisa Birnbach of the Riverdale School and Brown, Carol McD. Wallace of Country Day and Princeton and Mason Wiley of The Episcopal School and Columbia University. They agreed to collaborate. Miss Birnbach took on the chores of editor, writer and manager of the budget. She paid everyone else out of a checkbook imprinted with her nickname, ''Bunny,'' and a stemmed martini glass. [Roberts, Wallace and Wiley have WASP cred ... Birnbach, er, no.]
What emerged in September from the Workman Publishing house was ''The Official Preppy Handbook,'' by its own definition, the ''In book of the season.'' It is about Mummy and Daddy, whose lives and family rooms are imprinted decorously with the repeated images of ducks, whose Saturdays in the fall are given to tailgate picnics before the old school game, whose children are nicknamed Muffy or Missy or Buffy, Skip or Chip or Kip.
By the time Muffy and Skip become Mummy and Daddy, they will have mastered these and the million other details involved in living the elite and proper life of Prep. Or they can buy this book. Anyone can. ''You don't have to be a registered Republican,'' the preface says invitingly. ''In a true democracy, everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut. It's only fair.''
That may or may not be true, but it is funny. On the other hand, its authors say the book itself, 224 pages of wry detail, is a true account of being Preppy. ''Our feeling was that it is such an inherently amusing subject that we don't have to make jokes about it,'' says Mr. Roberts. ''All we have to do is tell the truth.'' Who cares? Anyone to whom it matters, or who wants a laugh.
The Library of Congress, which by function is pedantic, has the book catalogued under ''Preparatory schools - United States - Handbooks, manuals, etc.'' Elsewhere, there are 415,000 copies in print, and much laughter. The $3.95 book is No. 1 on the trade paperback best seller list for the second successive week. The four authors, who spent only a summer and a budget of $15,000 on writing and illustrations, find this most amusing.
When Mr. Wiley went home to Rocky Mount, N. C., this year for Thanksgiving (an event described in the college years section of the book as: ''First major break of the year. Almost everyone goes home by Wednesday afternoon, humming 'We Gather Together'''), he discovered that his summer project had not been without some social cost. ''My parents' friends were all embarrassed,'' he recalls. ''They said, 'You've exposed too much.' One woman went home and counted 15 ducks in her family room.''
The book's style is youthful, the prose wry and clean. The response has been bemusing. When Miss Birnbach, who has been on the road promoting the ''Preppy Handbook'' since mid-November, arrived in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Mayor Francis S. Buck proclaimed it ''Preppy Day.'' The department store carrying the book greeted her with ''Welcome Lisa'' banners of Preppy pink and green. In Charlottesville, the book is said to be the biggest seller since ''Dr. Zhivago.''
In the midst of such attention, Miss Birnbach attempts to maintain a Preppy sense of humor. When she is asked by interviewers if the men she dates are Preppy, she has a stock reply: ''No synthetic fibers touch any man that I will touch.''