Anyone who reads Gary Indiana’s new bitterly comic novel about Los Angeles will surely be forgiven for thinking he’s just another West Coast-bashing New York writer.
For “Resentment: A Comedy” (Doubleday) features a fictionalized portrait of the Menendez brothers, along with dozens of other murderous, drunken, drug-taking, sex-obsessed, generally pathological characters. There are also, despite Indiana’s pro forma claims to the contrary, thinly disguised, gleefully scabrous portraits of real people, including Menendez defense attorney Leslie Abramson and Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne. And it’s all topped off with a climactic earthquake whereby, as one critic put it, “the city itself is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.”
Surprise! Gary Indiana, on a weeklong visit to promote his cynical take on the city of noir, says he loves Los Angeles.
“I always like the feeling of apocalypse just over the horizon. It’s exciting.” He smiles naughtily. “Every day we spend in this city is a day that we didn’t have a massive earthquake.”
Having lived here for three years in the 1970s, he’s ready, at 47, to move back. “I mean, in New York we don’t have anything,” Indiana drawls, hunched over a lobster sandwich on the trellised patio of the Hotel Bel-Air from whose sun-speckled leaves the apocalypse seems far distant. “We don’t have weather--maybe an occasional hurricane that never gets into the city--and we don’t use the landscape. Why do I live in a city where you’ve got all these boroughs that you don’t need? I never go to Queens, I never go to Staten Island. Why do we need them?”
It’s hard to know how seriously to take this jaded delivery from someone who was named by one critic as “one of the gifted literary haters of his era.”
Still, he’s also known as a truth-teller. With his biting art criticism for the Village Voice, with novels like “Rent Boy” (Serpent’s Tail, 1994) and “Horse Crazy” (Grove Press, 1989), which chart New York’s drug and sex-obsessed gay low life, with the trenchant political and cultural essays of “Let It Bleed” (Serpent’s Tail, 1996)--and now with his panoramic view of societal sickness in “Resentment"--he has gained a reputation for skewering pretension, hypocrisy and mediocrity in every form.
“I’m really attracted to the darker side of things,” Indiana says, puffing nervily on a cigarette. “In ‘Resentment’ I used Los Angeles as a place where dark things would happen in a particular way. I thought always of this metaphor of the freeways as arteries of a big body, and how this thing happening in the middle, the Menendez court case, was spreading out along them like some kind of toxin through the blood of this place.”
It was his preoccupation with metaphor that prompted Indiana to write a novel rather than a nonfiction account of the trial in which Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted of killing their parents despite emotional testimony about years of sexual and emotional abuse. (He also wanted fires, mudslides and an earthquake epicenter on Temple Street.)
So the destructive, self-absorbed shenanigans of Seth, a journalist covering the trial, and his friends--J.D., a sleazy talk show host, and Jack, an Internet porn-addicted taxi driver--are mirrored in the dreadful revelations of the Menendez trial--or rather its fictional counterpart, the trial of Carlos and Felix Martinez--as well as in mentions of just about every public scandal to grace recent headlines, from O.J. to Sol Wachtler, the New York state Supreme Court justice who stalked his former lover.
All of which proves, Indiana says, that most people much of the time are motivated by pretty base emotions.
When he started writing “Resentment,” he wanted to conjure “exactly what goes through people’s minds when they think of the people close to them. All the things they never say, all the resentment and anger they suppress because of manners . . . that causes them one fine day to pick up a shotgun and blow somebody’s brains out.”
Isn’t this a rather harsh view of life?
“I’m not that harsh in reality.” Indiana even claims to believe in goodness. In his 20s, he worked as a paralegal in a Los Angeles legal aid office partly because he thought the world could be made a better place (though he ultimately decided he didn’t have the temperament for activism). And it was the essential youthful innocence of the Menendez brothers--he is a heartfelt believer in what others have called “the abuse excuse"--that drew him to fictionalize their story.
Still, he says, “I just think if you go over the history of the novel, nobody ever wrote a really good novel about nice people or happy people.” His next novel will be a fictionalized portrait of Andrew Cunanan, the suspected murderer of fashion designer Gianni Versace and others, who killed himself last month in Miami Beach.
Watching the Menendez trial on Court TV in New York, he started thinking about his own unhappy upbringing in Derry, N.H., and the way his father (now dead) turned into a different person when drunk. He wasn’t violent, Indiana says--his father drank from frustration with “hearing problems"--nor was his family really comparable to the Menendez household. Nevertheless, he has a memory of being very small and, with his brother who was five years older, watching in fear as “the drama of our parents played itself out.”
As a young man, he changed his last name from Hoisington to Indiana to make a break with his past, and he was for years estranged from his family. Writing the book, however, brought him closer to his brother, a former Air Force pilot who now works for a commercial airline and a father of four who is very “internal” and very “different” from Indiana, and whom he now realizes he “spent years and years very harshly judging.”
Clearly, the only way to handle all the bad news about the human race is to treat it as an absurd comedy, he says.
Is this why he took such merciless jabs in the book at real people, like writers Dunne, Hilton Als and Jamaica Kincaid, and Interview Editor Ingrid Sischy? For example, Dunne, renamed Fawbus Kennedy, is described as “a third-rate middlebrow” social-climbing snob with a “saurian smile.”
“Let me put it this way: I had a lot of fun and my lawyer didn’t,” Indiana says with a wicked smile. After a certain point, you just get sick of people’s ridiculousness, he says. And while revenge may not be the best motivating factor for writing, it’s definitely one of fiction’s “perks.”
What of the fast life of drug-taking and compulsive sex featured in “Resentment"--does this reflect his own reality?
“Not for many years,” he says wryly. During the frenetic period after he arrived in New York with only $8.25, determined to make a name for himself, he was a drug-taking workaholic who “was always falling in love with somebody who wasn’t my type and pursuing them to the ends of the earth.”
But recognition for his writing helped remove some of the frustrations that drove him to self-destructive behavior. These days he lives a quiet life, writing and reading in his Lower East Side apartment, swimming, going to movies, traveling when he has the money, and enjoying the company of a “wonderful calico cat called Lily--the most satisfying relationship I’ve ever known.”
After lunch, Indiana strolls past the former Menendez mansion on a tree-lined street in Beverly Hills, talking again about coming back to L.A. for the space and the quiet. Every few minutes a tour bus stops outside “the death house,” as he calls it, a microphone crackling as the bus driver relays the Menendez story to fascinated sightseers. Half a block away, a young man is yelling, “I had a vision.”
It’s surely a classic Indiana moment, proving once again that life is absurd? Indiana cracks up.