HAVING a novel become a literary sensation -- as Janet Fitch did seven years ago with “White Oleander” -- can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with widespread critical praise, being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, selling more than 3 million copies and seeing the book made into a successful film. On the other, what can you possibly do as a follow-up? More than one talented writer has been frozen in the headlights of outsize success or collapsed under the weight of such enormous expectations.
In her absorbing new novel, “Paint It Black,” Fitch proves she is up to the challenge. She revisits some physical and emotional territory, but to considerably different ends. Fitch has a gift for lush prose and rich, evocative descriptions, particularly of Los Angeles. But while her vision remains almost gothically dark, it is tempered by hard-earned moments of redemption.
“Paint It Black” centers on 20-year-old Josie Tyrell, a working-class Bakersfield transplant who supports herself as an art model and actress in low-rent films. As the novel begins, she is contacted by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office to identify the body of her boyfriend, Michael Faraday, who shot himself to death at a Twentynine Palms motel. Michael was a 22-year-old Harvard dropout and aspiring artist, and Josie loved him for his idealism, his refinement and his seeming innocence. Together, they created an idyllic life in the hills of Echo Park -- away from the clutches of Michael’s imperious mother, the brilliant classical pianist Meredith Loewy.
Meredith goes off the deep end after Michael dies, threatening and stalking Josie, whom she holds responsible. Soon, though, the women find themselves in a mutually mistrusting, strangely codependent relationship, held together by their guilt and common love for a young man neither of them really understood.
Much of the novel is taken up with Josie and Meredith’s attempts to find meaning in Michael’s death and forge new visions of their lives. But Fitch uses their stories to explore larger questions as well. Michael’s suicide notes are recovered from the desk of his grandfather, who shot himself in the head in his Los Feliz mansion after escaping the Nazis. Josie’s relatives, meanwhile, still work low-wage jobs in the Central Valley. Both legacies raise the question of how much we are shaped -- or doomed -- by our histories. Michael and Josie seem to love each other as much for what they represent as for who they are, and in so doing, they trap each other in the very definitions of themselves they are trying to escape. After Michael’s death, as some of his fictions come to light (Was he a virgin when they met? Could he really not drive? Was he truly inept at sports?), Josie begins to wonder exactly who it was she loved.
For all that, the central relationship of “Paint It Black” is the one between Michael and his domineering mother. Part love story, part competition, part haunting, part possession, their bond is the stuff of psychologists’ fantasies. Meredith builds her son up and rips him down with equal gusto, telling him at one point: “You’re not an artist, Michael.... How are you going to compete with people who have genuine talent?”
She herself is an artist of the highest order -- one who, along with her estranged writer-adventurer husband, set a standard that Michael could never live up to. His response to this is one of the central questions of the novel: Is a life worth living if it’s not destined for greatness? For him, the answer is no. Josie -- whose dreams were always more modest, and who begins to suspect that her appeal to him was primarily as an “anti-Meredith"-- tries to follow a different path.
Fitch lets her characters loose against a backdrop of 1980s Los Angeles, offering as vivid a portrait of the city as exists in fiction. There are the requisite dreamers, from the “armies of the ambitious” who hope for success on a grand scale to the gritty kids, like Josie and her purple-haired friend Pen, who are simply trying to make better lives. There are the regular folk, like the dogged widower Morty, who tells Josie that life is “rigged, and the house always wins,” or the old woman in Little Tokyo whose ability to laugh despite untold horrors (internment camps? Hiroshima?) is a powerful counterpoint to Michael’s upper-class agonizing. There are the intersections of “high” and “low” culture -- Meredith’s classical concerts and Josie’s drugged-out punk clubs -- as well as nature breaking through the concrete: the greenery, the hillsides, the ducks taking flight off the river. And then, of course, there are the inevitable markers of life in L.A. -- Helms Bakery, KROQ, Otis, the Brewery, Bullocks Wilshire and Cal Worthington and his dog Spot.
Perhaps most striking are the gorgeous descriptions of the city itself. As Josie takes Meredith to visit the rented house she shared with Michael in Echo Park, she drives up “soot-darkened Alvarado, past the taquerias and travel agencies.... Vendors lined up along the wide sidewalks selling everything from their mishmosh of carts and coolers -- coconut and yuca, chicharrones and tamales and carne asada, shaved ice cones, bags of pot. Discount stores operated under elaborate rooftop neon signs advertising businesses extinct since the Twenties.” Later, Fitch offers this view of West Hollywood: “One broad band below Sunset ran the double slashes of Santa Monica Boulevard, with its handsome, hungry boys watching the river of cars, hopeful thumbs ready.... And above them all, the giant Marlboro man squinted down from his billboard with testosterone scorn, like God sneering down on Creation.”
Much of Fitch’s writing has an ominous quality, as if her characters are always on the verge of stumbling onto something -- bad drugs, a harrowing sexual encounter, a cop in a really foul mood. Josie feels “flayed, gutted like a fish caught and cleaned right on the dock before it was dead"; she will always have, like shrapnel working its way out of her flesh, “pieces of this disaster coming to the surface, cutting through her from the inside out.”
Sometimes, these pieces don’t add up perfectly. It’s not clear, for example, why Michael is so drawn to Josie but eschews her friends and hangouts, nor what serves as the catalyst for Meredith’s change from enemy to cohort. A few minor players seem more like types than full-fledged characters, and an occasional description falls flat. Yet these are minor blips in an altogether rich and involving work; besides, a passionate novel, like a passionate life, isn’t always neat around the edges.
By the end of “Paint It Black,” Josie has struggled to come to terms with Michael’s suicide, with Meredith’s appeal and with her own definition of herself. Several questions are answered, while others are raised. We begin to understand the prison of Meredith’s history and fame, as well as the hopeless situation in which her son believed himself to be.
But the star of this story is undoubtedly Josie: flawed, profane, strong and finally unbeatable. Her view of the world is forever altered, first by Michael’s love and then by his death. Despite the darkness of Fitch’s vision, she crafts an ending that is surprisingly hopeful, even exhilarating, as Josie discovers that redemption isn’t found in rewriting or escaping your life, but rather in playing the hand you’ve been dealt. Loveliness is not confined to that idealized place Michael calls the “true world” but is possible right here, in this imperfect one. And in “Paint It Black,” Janet Fitch has created a dark, crooked beauty that fulfills all the promise of “White Oleander” and confirms that she too is an artist of the very highest order. *