As commentators never tire of reminding us, Southern California is a place unto itself. Especially the Hollywood Hills. Up there the movies’ gravitational pull eclipses the ocean’s daily suck—spawning a society that is sun-blasted but vitamin deficient, numbed by their good fortune into a trance of melancholy.
The day-trader hero of A.M. Homes’ stylish fourth novel is a perfect embodiment of this society. Rich beyond belief, Richard lives like a 21st-century pasha in his ultra-modern house overlooking Los Angeles. A nutritionist designs his meals, a trainer sculpts his physique and a house cleaner makes all the dirt go away. Every morning, he runs on the treadmill while his pretty neighbor does laps in her pool.
This tableau is shattered when Richard feels a pain in his chest. In the wake of his brush with mortality, Richard’s ordered life crumbles around him—quite literally. A sinkhole begins to swallow his house, a weeping mother accosts him in a supermarket and his estranged son heads for Los Angeles. Before long, Richard finds himself trying to make amends with his decades of selfishness.
This kind of middle-aged meltdown has already animated films like Lost in Translation and, more appropriately, Steve Martin’s LA Story. Like that movie, Homes sticks to a small palate of themes—irony and loss—which she layers in an exquisite portrait of a man attempting to swim against society’s decadence. "We live in a time when no one wants to remember," an aging hippie says to Richard. When the inevitable happens, the unobservant say, "Only in LA." As this book reveals, they really should know better.
American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn
Ted Greenberg New York, hardcover, $24.95
Nothing hails the arrival of summer like the buzz of lawn mowers. But like muscle cars, soda pop, hamburgers and virtually every other American tradition associated with July 4th, the green lawn is no longer green.
As Ted Greenberg writes in American Green, our zest for keeping our tiny plot of singularness tidy and brighter than the Jones’ has become a kind of illness. “If the American lawn … were a person,” he writes, “its diagnosis would be obsessive compulsive personality disorder.”
And this illness is costing us. Pesticides fell birds, wreck the ecosystem, and all the chopping is dangerous to humans, too. Between 1994 and 2004, 75,884 Americans per year were injured by lawn mowers. Do we really need to do all this because some primitive gene in our system says, “Go forth and mark your territory”?
Not necessarily. As Greenberg points out, the domestic lawn did not become popular until after the civil war—and only during the housing boom of the ’50s did it become a kind of American touchstone. And then it exploded—by the early ’50s there were 52 billion blades of grass in Levittown alone.
There is something cruelly perfect in this equation. Turf grass, as Greenberg notes, “is not native to North America, and this fact, combined with the continent’s highly diverse climactic conditions, make the perfect lawn an elusive goal.”
In other words, if you look across the drive at your neighbor’s beautiful patch of green—rest assured it’ll look like hell one day. In fact, you’ll probably be better off—and healthier too—if you simply do as comedian Alan Sherman once instructed: “Just paint your grass.”
Little Green Handbook: Seven Trends Shaping the Future of Our Planet
Ron Nielsen Picador, paper, $15
If that weed-choked brushfire that resembles a lawn left to seed doesn’t tell you so, then this book says it plain and simple: We’re using up our planet. In The Little Green Handbook, Ron Nielsen identifies seven trends which are shaping the future of Earth and, sad to say, they’re not going to be easy to reverse.
For starters, there are simply too many people and the land resources this increasing population needs are diminishing. Our water supplies are also shrinking and our atmosphere is polluted, so it traps greenhouse gases and lets harmful UV rays through. On top of it all, the way our society runs has produced great wealth and great poverty—a recipe for social unrest, especially since more and more people are moving to cities where they will live on top of each other. Is it any wonder armed conflict is on the rise?
Before you start wondering why this isn't titled Little Grim Handbook, Nielsen does give us a few UV-protected rays of sunshine. In 2007, for instance, he notes that global urbanization will reach the halfway mark. Good news, because when in 2015 OPEC’s dominance in oil production begins, we can all walk to work together rather than drive.
City of Tiny Lights
Patrick Neate Riverhead, paper, $14
In the 21st century, a private eye does not operate in a monochromatic world, especially in London. Cutting across the city in search of a mark, he’s likely to come across Jamaican gangsters, Indian chop-shop proprietors, prostitutes from the West Indies and maybe, just maybe, an Irish cop.
This is the world of Tommy Akhtar. Born of a Uganda mother and an Indian father, the hero of Patrick Neate’s new slapstick noir, City of Tiny Lights, needs to get paid. As the novel begins, a hooker named Melody Chase arrives at his office, looking for her missing friend Natasha. Not long after he signs up for the job, Tommy discovers Natasha’s last john was Anthony Bailey, a local politician who has just turned up dead at a Holiday Inn. Off we are to the races, as Tommy, like so many P.I.s before him, winds up in over his head, although somewhat more in touch with his moral center.
Neate, who won a National Book Critics Circle award for his global tour of hip-hop, Where You're At, is an instinctual writer. He seems to plot things out on the fly. As a result, this book lurches and leers across the page like a drunk heading for the toilet; its terrorist subplot eventually seems a bit extreme.
But the prose is something else. Agitated and robust, self-conscious yet wry, it taps out the city’s Afro-ethnic beat—revealing how those in power march to a song much of the population cannot hear. Sitting in a car, looking out at commuters, Tommy says: “I clocked the faces of executive gents, fixed on the lights of the car in front as they pictured their frumpy wives at suburban doors … I clocked the faces of white-van drivers, indicators flicking impatiently as they planned their next short-cut, their veins pulsing the same rhythm at the temple. Welcome to the city of tiny lights. It takes you a lifetime to get somewhere you’ve no particular desire to go.” That is, of course, until you read this novel. Then it seems terribly interesting.