By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 6, 2008
By Seth Greenland
Bloomsbury. 307 pp. $24.99
Marcus Ripps, the protagonist of Seth Greenland's smart, hilarious second novel, is a decent guy spinning the wheels of his life. He's production manager of Wazoo Toys in North Hollywood, a very small part of the very large and ever growing empire presided over by his friend Roon Primus, though friend isn't exactly the word one hastens to attach to someone as avaricious, rapacious and sublimely vulgar as Roon Primus. While Roon is on the fast track to unimaginable riches, Marcus is going nowhere:
"In those increasingly rare moments of reflection when he considered what he'd done with his life, Marcus knew that all he had vented was a will to mediocrity. Yes, he'd supported his family. Yes, he'd paid his taxes. And he was buried in the middle class with no hope of upward movement. Philosophy for Marcus had always been academic, to be read, debated, and contemplated, not actually lived. If asked to characterize his own belief, he would have said he had become an accidental Stoic, a purveyor of the Gospel of Endurance, one who was glad to simply get by."
Then two startling things happen: Roon announces that he's shutting down Wazoo Toys in the United States and moving the entire operation to China, and Marcus's older brother, Julian, a sleazeball "who took the noble out of savage," drops dead at age 40 of a myocardial infarction, bequeathing to his astonished but scarcely grief-stricken brother his small business, Shining City Dry Cleaner, "at the corner of Melrose and Gehenna, near several overpriced purveyors of trendy fashion and grooming ephemera favored by the young and feckless." On Marcus's first visit to this enterprise an unexpected visitor walks in and asks " 'Who are you?' in a European accent whose exact geographical origins he couldn't place but sensed was an area of whimsical castles, bad food, and a tortured relationship with Russia."
His visitor turns out to be a striking woman of about 30 who then asks, "Where is Juice?" This, it seems, was Julian's nickname when he conducted whatever business it was he conducted from the office behind the dry-cleaner's façade. She identifies herself as Amstel, hands him an envelope with $1,800 inside, and, when he presses her for more information, guesses that Juice had about 20 people working for him: all women. Marcus enjoys talking to her -- he "liked her accent, which reminded him of a cheesy sixties spy movie. He imagined it emanating in sultry tones from a trenchcoat-clad lady Communist who secretly wanted to tumble with the American hero" -- but is thrown for a loop when she says: "Dates, Marcus. I have SUV to pay off. Some guy who likes Greek would be good. Juice told you that costs double, right? Triple if he's Arab."
At last, the light goes on. Marcus thought Julian's lawyer had described his late brother as a "pip," but in fact he was a pimp, running 20 or so prostitutes and using the dry cleaning business as a front. Now Marcus is truly stunned. He'd lost his job at Wazoo as soon as he'd told Roon he wouldn't move to China; the boutique clothing shop co-owned by his wife, Jan, is losing money; his indebtedness, previously worrisome but manageable, is out of control; his son, Nathan, goes to an expensive private school; his mother-in-law, Lenore, who lives with them, has various medical needs and wants to purchase pole-dancing equipment. Et cetera.
In sum, it's crunch time for Marcus, and the question is whether he's up to it: "Marcus knew, no matter how much of a swashbuckler he might be in his dreams, no matter how many mountains he'd climbed, seas and deserts he'd crossed, no matter how many extraordinary, exhilarating, shoot-the-moon adventures he'd had in the confines of his own head, whenever he'd been given an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary in his real life, he had balked; punted the chance; rolled over and died a little." As for the opportunity at hand: Where to begin? The employees, for example: " Were they employees? Associates? Subcontractors? What exactly was the worker/management relationship? He was curious to know. Alas, there was no trade journal, no American Pimp in whose pages he could immerse himself to glean the whys and wherefores. Although he had allowed himself a stray sexual thought about Amstel, he was not viewing these women as a carnal cornucopia. Rather, he was pondering their nature as cogs in an enterprise currently engaged in what appeared to be a lucrative trade in the Greater Los Angeles area, and that was far more than could be said for China-bound Wazoo Toys."
So he bites the bullet. He decides that he will be "an enlightened potentate, running the business according to the highest standards of American management practice, not like Roon, who ran Wazoo like a pimp." He vows that "there would be no sampling of the goods, no fraternizing with the workforce, no office romance." He calls a meeting, at which a dozen women show up -- "Far from ravenous sex monsters, oozing carnality and appetite, they all appeared normal, particularly to someone who lived in Los Angeles" -- and introduces himself as "Breeze," his chosen nom de guerre. He tells them he'll set up 401(k) accounts for those who want them and will provide liberal benefits. Soon he is "stunned to find that" the business is grossing about $25,000 a week, with his cut roughly $4,500 a week, tax-free. He's reminded of the words he'd once heard a financial guru pronounce on a TV show: " Someone's going to get rich; it may as well be you!"
By this point we're halfway through Shining City, but the laughs -- and I can't remember when a novel last made me laugh so often or so loudly -- have only just begun. At first Marcus tries to keep Jan ignorant of the truth -- he tells her he's just running a booming dry-cleaning business -- but then a crisis arises and she's drawn (eagerly) into the web. Lenore follows suit, leaving only 11-year-old Nathan in the dark. Greenland, who lives in Los Angeles and appears to know the city and environs more intimately than the back of his own hand, drops zingers left and right. There's the nouveau riche society woman, for example, playing Lady Bountiful: "She was a lioness and, as such, not the kind of woman to whom Jan ordinarily gravitated. But she was friendly and treated Jan as if they might be members of the same club, one that used linen tablecloths, high-quality silver, and social assassination as a means of protocol enforcement." Or the woman whom Marcus hires to plan Nathan's bar mitzvah: "Hipster-nerd eyewear raked across an oval face that was distinguished by a gold nose ring in her left nostril. Her hair appeared to have been cut with a garden tool and was streaked with a shade of green that belonged on a tropical fish. She was a party planner, someone to whom people turned when the fear of faux pas had loosened their billfolds."
That is very smart stuff, and there's plenty more of it here; the opening scene, in which Julian "Juice" Ripps goes to his final reward, borders on the classic. But there's serious stuff as well. Greenland, whose previous book, The Bones (2005), is a delicious Hollywood send-up, understands that the exhilarating yet troubling place where Marcus finds himself entails complex and often ambiguous questions of right and wrong, and he treats these questions sensitively and intelligently. Mainly, though, Shining City is simply pedal-to-the-metal fun -- sassy and knowing and irreverent. It's much too much of all those things to be pigeonholed as "summer reading," but if you have room for only one entertainment this summer, let Shining City be it. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.