From his perspective as a longtime editor for Playboy, Stephen Randall is surely an expert on the manners and morals of what he calls "Upper Los Angeles"--"That's Hollywood," explains one of the characters in Randall's first novel, "The Other Side of Mulholland" (St. Martin's Press/L.A. Weekly Books, $23.95, 256 pages), "and all the glitz and the big houses and beautiful women and the BMWs."
But Randall is also intrigued by what he calls "Lower Los Angeles"--"the part of Los Angeles that's too dull to be the subject of a TV show or a Joan Didion novel." So he gives us a pair of protagonists, Perry and Tim Newman, who serve to show us both sides. The two brothers are struggling to make it in Upper Los Angeles, but they are still rooted in Studio City, where their father runs a Honda dealership and their mother dabbles in the politics of Valley secession.
Perry and Tim are twins, but they are hardly identical. Perry is straight, for example, and Tim is gay. "Perry was a hunk; Tim was not," explains the author. "Perry was successful; Tim was still struggling. Perry was smart and cynical and a sellout. Tim was smart and cynical and lost." What the brothers have in common, however, are creative ambitions that neither has yet fulfilled. Perry is a writer on "a cheesy cable game show" called "Boing!," and Tim is a writer for a Web site called Hollywood Today. The novel is presented as an account of their white-hot sibling rivalry.
At its core, however, "The Other Side of Mulholland" is a satirical take on life in Los Angeles. Indeed, the book is so richly decorated with local references that many of its gibes may be lost on outsiders and newcomers. "Merrill Shindler on KLSX says it's too good to be called fast food," says Ann Newman, Tim and Perry's mother, about Koo Koo Roo, her favorite source of catering for family dinners. "The Valley had an inferiority complex bigger than David Geffen's expense account," the author quips. When Tim is reduced to selling CDs to raise cash, he goes to Record Surplus on Pico Boulevard, which is exactly where I go to look for rare Van Morrison albums.
Randall plays his story for laughs, and his sense of humor is always sharp and even cutting. "You're the first girl I've dated since high school I didn't want to form a production company with," Perry says to the woman he loves. "I mean that in the best possible way." But if "The Other Side of Mulholland" is laugh-out-loud funny, the book can also be approached as a kind of updated morality tale, and Randall provides us with what passes for a fairy-tale ending in Upper Los Angeles.
The crisis that kick-starts "Resurrecting Mingus" by Jenoyne Adams (Free Press, $23, 244 pages) is the sudden collapse of a marriage. "He left her for a black woman," explains the character called Mingus Browning, referring to her father and mother and the failure of a marriage that had lasted 35 years. The irony is that Mingus' father is black, her mother is white, and so the color of "the other woman" takes on a wholly unexpected significance.
"She could be anything," says Mingus' mother, revealing what she had always feared about her husband's infidelities. "Chinese. Indian. I just don't want her to be black."
"Resurrecting Mingus" is Adams' first novel. Adams, born and raised in San Bernardino, is a poet, a dancer and a writer who came of age as a member of the World Stage Anansi Writer's Workshop in Leimart Park, arguably ground zero in an African American cultural explosion that is taking place now in Southern California. To her credit, Adams rejects the self-regard that is so common in the work of young authors, and she writes about each member of the fictional family with charm, compassion, insight and, above all, heart.
When we meet her, Browning is a promising young attorney on the partnership track at a law firm. She appears to be, quite literally, comfortable in her own skin, which she describes as "the color of yellow sunshine mixed with hints of red and brown." But now she is forced to see herself--and her race--through the eyes of her white Irish mother: "Do I look like the enemy my mother sees in her dreams?"
The crisis in her parents' marriage is only the most dramatic expression of a very old problem for Mingus--the three-way tug of war between her mother, her father and her sister: "Somebody always has to be loved more," she explains to her mother. "And somebody always has to get their feelings hurt, or the other one isn't happy." Thus, for example, Mingus feels an obligation to represent her mother in divorce proceedings. Adams is courageous enough to work with three of the most volatile ingredients in life--love, sex and family--and she adds the provocative element of race to what is already an explosive tale. As the secrets of the Browning family struggle to reveal themselves, the author allows us to see and feel the sting of betrayal in the most intimate possible ways. When her mother finds a videotape that her father has hidden, for example, she is shocked and hurt by what she sees on the tape, but not for the reasons that you may expect.
Mingus Browning is young and beautiful, urbane and upwardly mobile. "Cell phone, briefcase, plush suits," taunts her rival sibling, Eva, an embittered woman with secrets and scandals of her own. "All your little power symbols." But we are clearly far from the world of Bridget Jones and "Sex and the City." The restless love life of the beautiful young Browning figures crucially in "Resurrecting Mingus," but what is really going on here is an affair of the heart in the most profound sense.
West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.