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Searching for Clues in the Maze of Life : Empathetic or neurotic? Novelist Michael Petracca is the first to admit that he--and his protagonist--find lots of ways to look at the world.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A health food restaurant in Santa Barbara was as good a place as any for a reading of past lives, such as they were. And Michael Petracca was game for a side of explication de previous incarnations, along with his relatively mundane dish of potato and tofu.

So when an acquaintance offered to tell him what he’d been before he was what he is, Petracca was all ears--although he may not have been all sold.

“He said I’m a third-level old soul and that I was a priest in my last life,” recalls Petracca, 45, a Santa Barbara-based author in his present life. “Then he proceeded to look around the restaurant and tell me what every single person in the restaurant was, which happened to be pretty much a restaurant that was frequented by old souls.

“People who are of the same soul type tend to congregate with each other, was his point. It was a health food restaurant--they had soft-boiled vegetables that were easy to chew. It’s hard for us old souls to digest the way we used to.”

So does he or doesn’t he? Petracca may lace his satiric novels with his mirthful take on similar Southern Californian bits of metaphysical frippery, but does he also buy into it?

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“Let’s just say I thought it was preposterous and at the same time, I thought, ‘Why not? It’s probably as true as any other answer anybody else has.’ . . . Maybe it heals me, and if it doesn’t heal me, it at least provides material for humor--win-win situation.”

OK, so Petracca’s an ambivalent guy, so much so that he dedicated his latest novel, “Captain Zzyzx,” to an exploration of that double-edged trait, plunging his equivocating hero into the treacherous waters of romance. Indeed, Petracca is even ambivalent about being ambivalent.

“I think it’s the curse of the left-wing Social Democrat to see every side of an issue,” he muses, sipping a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda at his childhood haunt, the abiding Zucky’s deli in Santa Monica. “On the positive side, it makes me real empathetic. On the negative side, it makes me neurotic.”

If there’s one unambiguous strain in his work, his person and the protagonist of both his novels--Harmon Nails III--it’s that all three are consistently multifaceted.

Petracca is a novelist and poet who plays vintage Telecaster guitar in a Cajun-Zydeco band called J. T. and the Zydeco Zippers. Nails, coincidentally, plies all those pursuits as well. The bad guy in Petracca’s first book--"Doctor Syntax,” which lampoons the detective genre--is a literary gangster, a concept so unlikely it’s virtually an oxymoron.

Petracca is also a strictly Southern California guy who nonetheless prides himself on his New York-esque “ironic edge,” which threads all his fiction. He inherits it from his Brooklyn-born father, Joseph Petracca, who came west to Make It Big In Hollywood, which in his case meant writing a few movies--among them “The Proud Rebel” with Olivia de Havilland and Alan Ladd--and early-'60s TV detective shows like “The Untouchables.”

“I grew up going down to the set of ‘The Untouchables’ and collecting spent machine-gun shells and taking them to school and giving them to my friends,” says Petracca, who grew up with his neuroscientist sister, Froofy, 38. “I became instantly more popular as a result.”

But there was a dark side to Joseph Petracca’s Hollywood tenure, which left him ambivalent about his answered prayers.

“He was happy on one level because he was very successful, but he was miserable on another level because he would come home and just rail about Hollywood producers and how they wanted another shoot-'em-up scene in his ‘Untouchables’ script, and he’d complain about the philistine tastes of the people that were in power at the studios. He got ulcers and died (in 1963) of stomach cancer.

“Whether they’re medically related, I have no idea, but I know I related them subconsciously, and I think maybe I saw writing as something that killed you in my impressionable adolescent psyche.”

For years, Petracca dodged the obvious, flitting at UCLA from music to art to French. Ultimately, though, he graduated in English and pursued graduate work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he teaches writing. (Academia is also subject to the Petracca lance, which insouciantly re-dubs that realm the Anguish Department.)

Petracca went to grad school in the early ‘70s and he was very much a creature of his time and place, living in a communal setting and playing chess on a nude beach in Summerland. When he realized he didn’t want to be a literary critic, Petracca switched to psychology and spent several years as a prison counselor.

“It’s more like being in jail than you think,” he says, although the experience produced harrowing fodder for “Doctor Syntax.”

As for his fiction, Petracca chooses to credit the fates, which granted him a word processor 10 years ago. That fact, he says, overturned years he’d spent determinedly not writing prose “partially because of my dad, watching him do the writing process eight hours a day and typing rewrites. It looked like drudgery.”

So when the word processor nonetheless began churning out a satire on his father’s form of choice--detective fiction--Petracca took revenge on his father’s life by ridiculing it rather than repeating it. “Doctor Syntax” didn’t start out that way, however.

“I fully intended to write a mainstream detective novel when I started writing that book . . . because I’d make a lot of money. . . . As it turned out, real quickly I discovered I’m a satirist and not a detective writer, and that’s the voice that I seem to be most comfortable in at this stage of my life.”

“Doctor Syntax” traces the dizzy path of English graduate student Harmon Nails, who inherits a set of rare books with that title by the early 19th-Century writer William Combe. Nails is grappling with his dissertation, and he scribbles his one crystal moment of significant thought on a piece of paper that he slips into one of the books--which is stolen by thuggy members of a “paraliterary cult.” Their leader is a descendant of the author of “Tristram Shandy” whose idea of torture is to force his quarry to write literary criticism.

“Syntax,” inspired by an actual obscure work of that name by the equally actual and obscure Combe, sends Nails off to do his own detective work--a feat he accomplishes by dint of his TV detective show-watching past. “I think that’s probably one of the reasons why he gets lost a lot in the book,” Petracca says.

“Syntax” also tweaks aficionados of the growth and awareness movement--even though Petracca himself peppers his speech with phrases like “good energy.” The ailing Nails takes the why-not approach to a tome titled “Lung of Fire, Bowel of Applesauce,” which touts the benefits of “fruitarianism,” exhorting followers to give up all “ ‘mucoid-producing comestibles’ ” in the name of health.

Like “Syntax,” the bizarre title of “Zzyzx” (sounds like physics) stems from something real--an off-ramp sign in the Mojave Desert that reads “Zzyzx Road,” a road that shoots off seemingly to nowhere in what becomes a metaphor for Nails’s view of his life’s direction.

Petracca also began writing “Zzyzx” as a mystery, but the book veered off into a romantic comedy about Nails grappling with his ambivalence over intimacy--both the author and his creation opt for being single but attached. “I think it is a new kind of postwar generational issue that men and women look at their relationships and seem to be much more critical,” he says. “Having a palette of choices always makes life a lot more complicated, and I don’t think you can go back, so we might as well think it’s better even if it’s not.”

While both books are told from Nails’ droll viewpoint, the prismatic Petracca likes to flit from hybrid genre to hybrid genre, from satirical mystery to satirical romance, and next, to satirical science fiction. His next book, “B0 F0,” will star hermaphroditic android sex slaves who decide to go on strike.

Petracca’s novels garnered a warm review from the San Francisco Chronicle, which described “Syntax” as a “wry, narcissistic flow of reminiscence and self-revelation encouraged by decades of therapy.”

If that sounds Californian, Petracca considers himself apiece with the offbeat, alternative California literary tradition personified by “Wild at Heart” writer Barry Gifford. (Editor Gifford’s former noir imprint, Black Lizard, had acquired “Syntax” before the imprint was sold to Vintage and pared--"It was well thought out and successful, and I thought it should appeal to a wide audience of mystery lovers,” Gifford says.)

Petracca praises Gifford’s work in part for his postmodern tendency to resist “the bourgeois impulse toward easy closure,” or in non-academic-speak, happy endings.

Not that Petracca resists them himself.

“I try to throw monkey wrenches in the works in different ways,” he says. “I’m kind of a fan of happy endings.”

After all, Petracca did grow up next door to Hollywood--"with the dad who wrote B movies.”


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