VIDA, who has always thought of herself as culturally black, owns a jazz club in the heart of Watts. At the age of 18 she killed her mother's drug dealer by backing him against a brick wall and cutting his throat with a razor blade held between her teeth. After that she went to work for the Mafia as a contract killer; by the time the book opens, she has done in 26 unfortunates, all with the same gun.
Alba is a French transplant to L.A. who makes as much of precocity as Vida does of homicide. Alba is 13, and her middle-aged paramour, Serge Gorodish, has promised to disabuse her of her virginity upon her 14th birthday. Serge is a pianist. He takes a fair amount of valium, and I don't blame him. Alba immerses herself in the study of Taoism, and opens a detecive agency called Pink & Pink.
Horace Perceval III has amassed a few million dollars buying and selling collectible memorabilia. His wardrobe includes 200 Hawaiian shirts. His secretaries are named A, X and Z. He is 9 years old and knows that genius is a commodity which shrinks upon the onset of adolescence. He lives in a pyramid.
Strawberry also lives in a pyramid. She paints portraits of retired construction workers. Pearl O'Pearl lives in another pyramid and composes minimalist music. Kim and Suzy have pyramids of their own, but share a husband. His name is Jeremy David Wrightson, but he changed it to Marlowe Wrightson out of admiration for Raymond Chandler, but everybody calls him Pharaoh because of his obsession with pyramids. Pharaoh is the father of Horace and Strawberry and Pearl O'Pearl, and the ranking genius of American architecture. He has a pyramid of his own, of course. Not a day passes, we are assured, but that some young architct asks to study with him.
(You know, I questioned that when I encountered it. That would be 365 young architects a year at a minimum, more if you consider that they wouldn't space themselves at the rate of one per diem. Then it struck me that the same young architect might come knocking on the gates more than once. Never mind.)
Curious and reasonably interesting things happen as the book's plot takes shape, or doesn't. Vida whips out her trusty Welrod 9-mm. and nails #27, a Cuban gangster who hits on her at a tango palace. Pharaoh, approaching psychological crisis because his life is too enjoyable and satisfying, rents a house designed in imitation of the mansion of Chandler character Terry Lennox. Pearl O'Pearl's Orpheus has its premiere, with a baboon conducting, a mynah bird singing the libretto, and a robot announcing the beginning of each movement and sequence. Alba takes over a detective agency and sends the owner thereof fishing in Mexico. Horace Perceval III falls in love with her, but she explains her heart belongs to Gorodish, although she has time for a light affair with Strawberry.
Vida, stabbed by her Cuban, escapes on a jazz buff's motorcycle. Pharaoh finds her and hires her to kill bad architects. Horace buys the original Rosebud from Citizen Kane. Strawberry mistakes Gorodish for a retired construction worker. And Alba, God save the mark, arrives at the precipitous age of 14.
DOES ALL OF this suggest to you that the book may be slightly mad? I should hope so. It is surely that, and its characters and incidents could have sprung full-blown from the pages of a stoned comic book. The chapters have titles like "In Hollywood Anything Can Happen, Anything at All" and "Two Leeches in a White Cadillac" and "Talented People Are Often Neurotic," and we are told that most of the chapter titles are phrases taken from Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Why, you might ask, select chapter titles in this fashion? If you have to ask, Vida's jazz fans might reply, you'll never know.
Nor will I. Yet I can't dismiss the fact that I found Vida a surprisingly good read. The plot holds little tension and makes precious little sense. All the characters have a limitless supply of money, and money can accomplish absolutely anything in this book. The book works because Delacorta writes with such wit and imagination, and does so in a limpid, effortless style.
Delacorta, we are told, is the pen neme of a Swiss novelist and screenwriter named Daniel Odier. Previous books under this nom de plume include Nana, Luna, Lola and Diva, all of which would suggest that the man is in somthing of a titular rut. He now teaches comparative literature at the University of Tulsa. And lives in a pyramid, I shouldn't doubt.
But that's all right. When Alba, rising from her study of the Chinese ancients, assures Gorodish that he is "my lemon sorbet, my California bitter orange, my African Eskimo Pie, my volcanic iceberg, my apple pan- Taody," one can forgive him almost anything.