Los Angeles has always struggled with esteem issues: "Lack of history." "Lack of literature" "Lack of distinctive skyline." Just substitute "L.A." for "dumb blond" in the joke cycle and you get the classic outsider take on left coast life--highly alluring yet ultimately vacuous.
Set in the Los Angeles of this very moment--right down to Friday's date night at LACMA and KNBC anchorman Paul Moyer's nightly flubs--Stephen Randall's new novel, "The Other Side of Mulholland" won't do too much to remedy those perceptions about our soft life in the sun. But image rehabilitation wasn't quite what he had in mind--you could think of it as an add-on.
Randall's writing is as sharp and bright as the region's fabled Mediterranean sun. And those familiar with that quality of light know it can show off the region with all of its blemishes and glory.
In a fast-paced and funny episodic novel (his first), Randall has presented a Los Angeles full of bizarre, oftentimes inexplicable, hierarchies and dualities--gym culture's elite "pump rooms" versus nondescript "training floors," BMWs versus Hondas and, of course, the city proper versus that indistinct region on "the other side of the hill," that other side of Mulholland.
The distances in Los Angeles, as one of his characters observes early on, are not "geographic but psychographic."
The conceit of an "upper" and "lower" Los Angeles is the prism through which Randall's book is filtered. We see the city's "haves" and "not sure what they haves" through the wildly disparate lives of twin brothers, Tim and Perry, one gay and one straight. One is a shabby dresser and general underachiever, the other GQ slick and on the A-list fast track--until circumstances shift from their usual trajectories.
"Think of L.A. as an iceberg," says Tim's new boss, Simon James, once a beloved No. 2 editor at a series of New York magazines, who now a runs Web start-up in Culver City. "There's that tip that everyone can see. That's Hollywood and all the glitz and the big houses and beautiful women and the BMWs. Upper Los Angeles. The mythologized Los Angeles ... ," he explains.
The lower part "is too dull to be the subject of a TV show or Joan Didion novel. It's normal life. It's the people who came out here to be Cameron Diaz or Brad Pitt and ended up working for Allstate instead. At first, they are disappointed, but you adjust to almost any reality."
Well versed in all these layers and intricacies, Randall, a third-generation Angeleno, knows all the cliches and perceptions that attach to being a native son. And maybe that's why he revels in flouting and tweaking them.
He's Not Your Typical Angeleno
He is exactly the kind of Angeleno to whom outsiders would readily extend the backhanded compliment: "You don't seem like you're from Los Angeles." But unlike many transplants, this Angeleno doesn't dismissively refer to Los Angeles by its initials. He doesn't aspire to write screenplays or teleplays.
He is an executive editor of a national magazine (one that, he allows, might in some circles, nudge him into Upper Los Angeles geography: Playboy), but it's merely publishing, not film production, in this place where film and television are king. He doesn't blare brand-name baubles, just a pair of bookish specs. Actually, the flashiest things on him are his smile and his thick, silver-threaded hair.
He shows up for this Upper L.A. "chat and chew" in Westwood (an activity that occurs frequently throughout "The Other Side of Mulholland") in a pair of jeans and a crisp, black button-down shirt. He's dressed not to impress, but for practicality. "I know how these things go," he says with a grin, "I just didn't want to spill anything on myself." As the editor responsible for the stories that people "really buy the magazine for"--including the Playboy Interview--he's comfortable on both sides of the table.
Los Angeles, the land of "full-team-coverage" and carwashes that offer self-help books along with bumper-to-bumper detailing, is both freeing and absurd.
And because of its penchant for extremes and rule-breaking, the region has always been on the receiving end of the easy jab, the recycled joke--a land of misfit toys.
But though these L.A.s do exist, "no one will give us credit for having normal lives," says Randall. "The idea that your life and my life is not unlike our life if we lived in Ohio or Connecticut or anywhere else .... We have take-out from Koo Koo Roo on Sundays."
The perception problem, he says, often has a lot to do with just who is doing the chronicling. "Not only do the people who tend to write about us [tend to] be the people who have been here for 15 minutes. They are writing about the other people who have been here for 15 minutes. And during that first 15 minutes, people tend to go crazy," he explains.
"That's when they tend to dump the spouse and either get plastic surgery or gold chains ... and behave badly. And then they sort of settle down into that normal life that is really not only normal but nicer here. It's actually a great place to have a normal life."
He Knew Early on He Wanted to Be a Journalist
Randall, 51, who is married and the father of one son, has certainly had one--despite L.A.'s distractions and all manner of possible derailments. He attended Santa Monica public schools. At USC, he studied journalism.
"I'd decided that I wanted to be a journalist in sixth grade, " he recalls. By high school he had aspirations to work at Esquire with its innovative editor, the late Harold Hayes. "To me that was just about as hip as anything could possibly be. But by the time that I got out into the real world, that [version of the] magazine no longer existed."
Randall knocked around Los Angeles' often unglamorous, idiosyncratic print world. After stints at a few small, independent newspapers, he ended up at Woman's Wear Daily where he inherited the feature beat. "Which," he recalls, "was a lot of glitzy, Hollywood society stuff. I would do things like profile Lucille Ball or Gene Wilder."
The juxtaposition of Hollywood's rarefied climate against everything else he knew about Los Angeles, was something that stuck with Randall long after he left Women's Wear Daily and the party circuit to become an editor at Los Angeles Magazine and then Playboy. From then on, "I had it written into my contract. I made them promise that I would not have to go to a party."
Little did Randall know that he had been collecting scads of valuable source material--until he sat down to lunch with a friend and colleague Sue Horton, then editor of LA Weekly, and now editor of the Times' Sunday Opinion section. He pitched the idea of a newspaper serial, something in the same vein as Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City." Horton liked the idea. And Randall went off to develop it.
The first hit of "The Other Side of Mulholland" came to him on the treadmill. "[At] the gym I used to go to, the treadmills overlooked the entire gym. And the division in the gym was very clear to me because I was always looking down and watching the two different worlds. I actually wanted to do a Romeo and Juliet in the gym, but ... logically, I couldn't quite put it together. But the idea of Tim and Perry came to me."
Horton was impressed with the four sample chapters Randall shipped her way--"the family relationships, Syd the father, always palming his son money, " Randall's depiction of "that very particular swath of the Valley hills." But she didn't see it as Weekly fare. "He gives me a hard time," says Horton, "and says that I didn't find it pierced and Silver Lake enough."
Horton liked it enough, though, to take it to the Weekly's newly minted book imprint at St. Martins Press. And they, to Randall's utter surprise, liked it too.
"When I called my agency to say I just got an offer on a novel, my agent said, 'I didn't know you were writing a novel,' and I said, 'Neither did I."'
An Accurate Portrayal of a Particular L.A. Lifestyle
Randall adeptly sketches L.A-and its loud and attention-seeking cousin Hollywood--with its convoluted language of doublespeak and non sequitur, a region constantly remaking itself. ("People want new things, but they want them to be familiar," a studio exec explains to Perry during a pitch.) The novel hums at a 65-mph pace, and in many ways is a guidebook detailing the way of life of a very particular L.A.: There is Perry and girlfriend Nancy whose idea of true commitment is not marriage but forming a production company.
Or Tim, the aspiring writer, who, when he finally seems to be on the road to success, is strongly urged by his new, hunky, rising-star beau to upgrade his image. Lose the Honda and trade up, his beau urges--but all that Tim can (barely) afford is a "very bottom of the BMW food chain [model] ... the 318ti .... A car that Tim knew would have been humble by Kia's standards."
There are moments that are so dead-on, so insider, that you wonder if anyone outside our cell-phone contact radius might get the finer details. "That made LACMA one of the premier date-night activities in L.A.--it presented just the right image, especially since that whole Friday-evening crowd looked like they came straight from the Standard on its way to the SkyBar."
But what's most important, and what Randall clarifies, is that much of what Los Angeles truly is often vanishes under the weight of vivid expectation and imagination. The "upper" and "lower," the either/or, don't just refer to the region's exteriors, but to the interiors of its inhabitants.
The real dichotomies are in the choices made by characters, who thread themselves through the facades and poor choices, who try to locate purpose or meaning within it all.
For instance: Tim and Perry's wandering soul mother, Ann, who restlessly flits from one diversion she calls "career" to another. Tim's cubicle-mate, Sandy, is a visual artist plunked down at the "Hollywood Today" Web site, , hoping to catch her breath and regroup. She considers this time working away from her field, trying on another life, her version of the Dodgers "rebuilding year," a chance to reassess.
It's Los Angeles that gives them that wide berth. And for all of its nonsense and pretensions, the city with its loose boundaries can be kind and forgiving.
"Its not rigid. You're freed from so much here--which can be good or bad. But you have to be able to shift gears," Randall explains, "Los Angeles is a nonlinear city. It's the only city, with the exception maybe of Los Vegas--that's not based on a European model--geographically or psychographically. Buildings don't go straight up. Careers don't go straight up--so if it doesn't work out, you move on. We don't stick our feet in cement and stay there.... and nobody thinks it's the least bit odd."
Stephen Randall will discuss his book "The Other Side of Mulholland" tonight at 8 at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 659-3110 or (800) 764-BOOK.