Paul Monette does a great California, even giving us a hot-tub murder. The victims are superstar Jasper Cokes and his one-night stand, Harry Dawes. The two widows, heiress Vivien Cokes and failed screenwriter Greg Cannon, join forces to find out whodunit. No (we aren't talking Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, here), they don't fall in love, but yes, they do become friends: touchingly and believably, giving this book its resonance. "Once we take somebody up," Greg tells Vivien, "from that point on they're family. You'll see -- we'll buy you stuff for your birthday. We'll borrow all your records. You won't be alone on a Saturday night from now till doomsday."
Greg's "we" includes Sid and Edna, two down-and-outers who help Greg run a mail-order movie-memorabilia business. They're wonderful characters, especially Edna, who, at the age of 45, gave up waitressing in Shiner, Tex., to come to Hollywood. "You know what your problem is?" Edna tells Greg early on, "You don't enjoy a crappy mood."
It's true; at the book's start, Greg is a mess. Despite his daily contact with Edna and Sid, he describes friends as "usually people who got so close they tried to change him." He is agoraphobic, never going outdoors if he can help it. He's finished with dreams of writing for the screen, but nonetheless is plagued by what Monette calls "the sequined taunts of Hollywood." To make matters unbearable, Greg has just realized he's fallen in love with the boy in 2C, Harry Dawes, when he hears of Harry's death. Paul Monette shines when he's inside the world of those who are barely making it -- in this case, the tenants of the Cherokee Nile apartment house.
Monette's not nearly as successful when he crosses to the world of those who are making it big. Vivien has walled herself away as convincingly as Greg, but with her it's bodyguards, a sure table at Ma Maison, an old hillside estate, a powder-blue Rolls. While the world of Greg Cannon is very nicely particularized, the world of Vivien Cokes is stylized, filled with all the stuff we've come to expect of rich California ladies (400 acres in Bermuda, though, is much too much). But Monette knows enough to show us Vivien getting away from it all, dealing with the woman behind the pizza counter, for instance, or better yet, with a clerk in a sporting goods store. Nice episodes, these.
Still, the book is not the quick read that the whodunit plot would lead us to expect, and whether or not this novel works depends almost entirely upon your reaction to this fact. For those new to his work (me, for instance, though the flyleaf lists several earlier books), Monette's style takes a lot of getting used to. And even so, it is too often labored, slowing the action tremendously. For example, "When they said goodbye, it was unadorned with the hope they would meet again. They didn't say anything cheery, not 'Take care,' not 'Have a nice night.' They left all that to the wheel of time. They stuck to the one word only. Just goodbye."
See what I mean? Either you love it or it drives you crazy. In any case, you're going to notice and, to my mind, that's a flaw. The writing is, in far too many places, self-consciously poetic. "A savage veil of smog, the first of its kind this spring, had sorrowed down in the night," Monette says. Can't you see him really reaching for that verb? And given that verb, why not go without the adjective? "Veil" and "sorrow" work together just fine, but "savage"? If Monette's word choices are going to draw our attention, then, by gum, they'd better stand up to close scrutiny, and they don't more frequently than they do. The style seems to be applied like icing, deliberately and in globs, and long after the cake has cooled.
But few books, and especially few paperback originals, have everything. This one has plenty: good characters, super setting, strong plot, nice theme. And if you happen to like a lot of icing, well, it has even more.