By Maxx Barry
Viking. 294 pp. $23.95
Michael is 23 and broke in L.A. He has an overwhelming yearning to be rich, famous, thin, well and happy: "I want to be so famous that movie stars hang out with me and talk about what a bummer their lives are. . . . I want to be implicated in vicious rumors about Drew Barrymore's sex parties." Michael is pitiably far away from any of these venal dreams; he's unemployed and lives in an unattractive apartment with a young marketing graduate from Singapore named Yuong Ang, a k a Sneaky Pete, who is broke as well (and whose only assets seem to be a glittering pair of shades and an extreme disinclination to talk). But Michael is hopeful to a fault. He's sure he can think of something to remedy his depressing situation.
He does! He changes his name to Scat, comes up with an idea for a new soft drink with a name that can't be printed in a family newspaper, goes right on over to the Coca-Cola Co. to tell them about it, meets a 21-year-old female Stanford graduate named "6" (because you can't get anywhere in marketing without a snappy name), immediately becomes enamored of this black-haired, black-fingernailed, sullen beauty, and with 6's pouty, evil-tempered, cold-blooded help, sells this new slinky soft drink--geared to twentysomething hipsters everywhere who wear black from head to foot and practice sneering at each other--to Coca-Cola for $3 million up front.
Except, guess what? Yuong Ang, a k a Sneaky Pete, already copyrighted the unprintable-in-a-family-newspaper brand name the day before. Not only that, Mr. Pete gets hired on at Coke, and both Scat and 6 find themselves pretty much out on their twentysomething ears, taking the bus in L.A., "unemployed and uninsured," as the saying goes, already old hat, damaged goods in the world of hot young marketing, and Scat's not even 24 yet.
This is a novel for, and about, all the desperate twentysomethings who congregate in the lobby of New York's new W Hotel on certain specified weeknights, all of them, without exception, dressed in black, the women's pale, whacked-out faces gashed with black lipstick, nail polish on their anxiously bitten-down nails, their worked-out legs balancing on precarious, black, four-inch slides. God help them all, young men or women, if one of them ever smiled or slumped their worked-out shoulders. The whole hotel, the "W" mystique, might fall right over in a cloud of anxious dust. This is a novel for and about their L.A. counterparts, clogging that triangular intersection where Melrose Avenue hits Santa Monica Boulevard, their clothes, in this tropical city, as black as if every friend or relative they've ever known in their entire lives had already died, and the possibility of turquoise, or peachy pink, or a silly joke of any kind, has been irrevocably closed to them forever.
What Scat brings into this solemn, self-regarding world is unknowing sweetness, goofiness and a warped capacity for affection. And though this is novel writing at its most frivolous and certainly unrealistic (the author assures us, in a pious disclaimer, that "the Coca-Cola Company . . . would not under any circumstances behave as is portrayed in 'Syrup,' including marketing a product like the one or with the name described within"), there's something so nostalgic and right on the money about this novel that the reader has to sigh.
For all their ferocity, petty crime and world-class cheating, Scat, 6 and Sneaky Pete are definitively young. Scat, whenever 6 spurns him, which is often, moves in with dumb blonde Cindy, who wants to be a movie star. When Cindy catches Scat with 6, she pitches his clothes out of her apartment; she pitches them out often. 6 lives with a film school student named Tina in a Venice housing project from the '50s, so real that it breathes. Tina believes in film-as-art, and she'd be a stereotype except that if you live in L.A. you've met her a thousand times, and she's absolutely just as serious and self-righteous as she is in these pages.
Who's going to sleep with whom? If you do have sex with anybody, it's always going to be your second choice, because that's what the world is like when you're twentysomething, terminally serious, wearing black all the time and pitching people's clothes out the window. This is the world of the folding bed, the boyfriend whose name you didn't catch, the girl you love who can't stand you, but you can sleep on the floor while she sleeps on the couch and lets you share a corner of her blanket. And maybe sometime during the night she'll let her hand rest carelessly on your chest.
So "Syrup" is a satire allegedly about business and marketing, and of course it is that, but it's really about youth, desperate, feckless, joyous youth, where everything is possible, where with enough ambition, organizational skills, imagination and fanatical work habits, it's possible that you really can get what you want. Why not? Reality, whatever that is, hasn't set in yet.
Poor as stones, taking the bus to their appointments, Scat and 6 find themselves back at Coca-Cola, where they're soon engaged in producing the longest, hugest advertisement ever made, a feature film about the wonders of Coke, starring Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow. Sneaky Pete is still firmly ensconced in the corporation, having hired a platinum-dressed female assistant who goes by the name of @. It goes without saying that Pete and @ will do anything--anything!--to foil our hero and heroine. But the author raises an interesting marketing hypothesis: In a world of lies, deception and fraud of every kind, what weapon serves the righteous best? The truth, of course! It's a message that the black-clad youngsters out on Melrose and in the W Hotel would listen to judiciously, and agree to gravely, even though they'd never smile.
Upcoming in Book World
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
OLYMPIA, by Dennis Bock. In this novel, water both buoys and weighs down a family. Reviewed by Robert Lalasz.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, by Myrlin A. Hermes. Scandals and witchcraft bedevil a family in this novel set in a small town. Reviewed by Boyd Zenner.
INSIDE THE KLAVERN: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, edited by David A. Horowitz. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
LEAVING PICO, by Frank X. Gaspar. Family feuding Portuguese American style dominates this novel. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.
THE WEIGHT OF DREAMS, by Jonis Agee. A novel of ranches, horses and fleeing the law. Reviewed by Carolyn See.