EVERYBODY SMOKES IN HELL
By John Ridley
Knopf. 236 pp. $23
Reviewed by Richard Lipez
It's not the standard disclaimer: "This book is a work of fiction. Any similarities between the miscreants in this story and the actual insipid degenerates who populate the city I hate more than cancer [are] purely coincidental. Anyone claiming to be represented in this novel is suffering from severe closet-psychosis ego issues which would best be dealt with immediately."
No time-waster, Ridley also serves up, even before the opening line -- "Hollywood was what the sign said" -- this epigraph, from a 1946 letter Raymond Chandler wrote to Alfred Knopf: "The overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism is largely false. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world."
And these are the sentiments Ridley endorses before he really lets L.A. have it. That comes halfway through this seriously noir-ish, ultra-violent, ultra-high-speed, occasionally hilarious, dark farce of a novel. The protagonist, Paris Scott, a young, black, aspiring-but-failing actor-writer-director, is running as fast as his '76 AMC Gremlin will carry him toward Las Vegas. In L.A., Paris has impulsively stolen a tape worth millions from rock star Ian Jermaine, whose unrelated suicide has upped the value even more of what has turned into Jermaine's final performances. Pursued by a diverse crew of well-groomed maniacs -- a mix-up over a drug bust turns Paris into the target of a drug lord who thinks he's been dissed -- Paris is delayed in the desert outpost of Barstow. There he hooks up with Nena, a despondent chicana waitress in a dive run by a racist Neanderthal.
"Now Paris looked, saw what Nena saw: nothing. A different kind of nothing than he had achieved in L.A. Paris's nothing, back there, was built up -- glamorized with palm trees, sunshine, and big-city-living. But just below all that was a vapid vacuum of a hole where nothing people lived nothing lives that were set-decorated with German cars, huge houses, and the best fake body parts money could buy, in order to approximate the most basal state of worthwhile being. The contrast between there and here was that Barstow wore its nothingness for all to see. It was too proud not to own up to all it wasn't."
This is bleak, angry stuff -- Nathaniel West on downers meets William S. Burroughs on uppers -- and be assured that Ridley doesn't simply assert that life as Paris Scott knows it is pointless and stupid; he shows it, exactingly. And because he locates his story at the nexus where the lower-middle reaches of the drug trade meet the lower-middle levels of show business, Ridley's degraded human landscape is believable. His characters are often cartoony, although when they are, they don't ring false or seem incomplete: They are simply people who -- in the pursuit of cash, or material semi-splendor, or celebrity -- have found it convenient to shed some of their dimensions.
Chad Bayless is the Hollywood talent agent whose "creative financing" is likely to be exposed by the loss of the Jermaine tape. His gift for cell-phone bombast is all he's got in life, and suddenly it's not enough. Daymond Evans is a drug tycoon who spends his days shrieking at underlings and whores in his Baldwin Hills digs, and he's proud of his lofty position in the L.A. scheme of things. A freelance killer whom Daymond sends after Paris is a psychopathic young sexpot named Brice, who seduces men to get information, and then, if she doesn't like the information, tortures them with lighted cigarettes. One of the most bloodcurdling scenes in the novel has Brice, closing in on Paris and Nena and popping into a convenience store to pick up a carton of Camel wides.
The novel's strong-as-firecrackers plot is set off when Paris's girlfriend dumps him and calls him a loser. He is one, but so is everybody else in this tale of damaged people -- flailing desperately after the meretricious. What makes all of this bearable to read, and frequently entertaining -- unlike, say, Less than Zero and other more ponderous explications of L.A. soullessness -- is Ripley's wonderful descriptions (a man who comes into a convenience store isn't just pale white, he is "hold-him-up-to-the-light-and-see-his-kidneys white"), pages and pages of day-glo dialogue and an antic dark humor. The Jermaine suicide scene -- the rock star's Mishima-style ritual goes spectacularly awry -- is, unlikely though it sounds, grandly funny.
Ridley is also well-versed in his predecessor's best work. His opening scene riffs beautifully on the opening scene of Chandler's The Long Goodbye, although Ian Jermaine makes Terry Lennox, drunk, his leg hanging out the door of his Rolls-Royce, seem like a model of L.A. good breeding.
Richard Lipez writes private-eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.