He's been piecing this one together for years

Times Staff Writer

Tom Epperson, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter and even more longtime aspiring novelist, is a gentle man who's just published a brutal book. Epperson, who has a shy Arkansas twang and a slight hangdog manner, was talking on a recent afternoon about his 1930s-esque noir, "The Kind One," at Musso & Frank's in Hollywood, a place he loves for its literary ghosts.

"I know the amnesia thing is standard in noir, it's a little familiar," Epperson, 56, said of the book's protagonist, who has no idea who he is. "But it's so much fun. There's a reason why it's used so often, because it's an investigation into the nature of your own identity. In a sense we're all doing that. I don't believe people who say they understand existence: I think it's a mystery we're all trying to figure out."

It's a comment you wouldn't expect from the author of "The Kind One," whose narrator, Danny, has a good heart but no evident inner life or philosophical yearning. He's interested in surviving from day to day, and that's not always easy.

Danny works for a sadistic gangster who's part Bugsy Siegel, part Mickey Cohen and part Lucky Luciano. This gang leader's actions -- including an opening scene that is horrible without being at all graphic -- were inspired by several contemporary Mexican gangsters.

The book, which has been endorsed by L.A. writers Robert Crais and Carolyn See, was recently praised in The Times. Eric Miles Williamson called the novel "a circus of cliches" -- but in a good way. "On every page, the language is crisp and fresh, the details sharp and keenly observed, the dialogue real, never forced."

Part of what makes the book, which at times reads perhaps too much like a screenplay, appealing is its period setting, which comes from the author's deeply rooted love of the '30s. The decade has special resonance for an L.A. crime novel: Though the book doesn't directly echo the early work of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain -- and the author avoided revisiting the former because he feared Philip Marlowe's voice would overwhelm his own -- noir casts its grim shadow. Epperson read Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land" and books about bootlegging and crime, and watched every period film he could get his hands on.

He was struck, in his research, by "the casual racism" of the day. He also found some little-known institutions, including a Pasadena-based eugenics group (supported by Times publisher Harry Chandler) called the Human Betterment Foundation, and an L.A. drinking club called Little Brother's, a rare spot where black and white, gay and straight, caroused together.

"I spent two years on the book, and the first seven months was just research," said Epperson, who co-wrote the screenplay for 1992's "One False Move" with longtime friend Billy Bob Thornton.

"I didn't want this to be some fantasy of the past. I wanted it to be grounded in historical reality. And 1930s L.A. was a great time: Everybody was corrupt: the cops, the judges, the press, the businessmen. . . . There was literally nowhere to turn; there was no real justice."

Boyhood heroes

As a small-town boy at the University of Arkansas, Epperson fell for Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and later fell into "a daze" over the rest of the Russian-born mandarin's work. He also responded -- on the other side of the spectrum of style -- to "the poetry of simplicity" in Ernest Hemingway.

After college, he studied English, also in Arkansas, and later bumped into a neighbor, a buck-toothed kid he'd long seen as a younger brother. "When I got back from grad school, Billy had grown up."

The old friends reconnected and realized they were united by their ambitions -- Thornton's dream to become an Elvis-like singer, Epperson's drive to make himself a famous Nabokov-like writer. They just needed to get out of Arkansas first.

So the two said goodbye to their girlfriends and mothers and moved to New York. (For Epperson, the trip was provoked in part by a similar move by John Boy in "The Waltons.")

"We were horrified," Epperson said of their arrival. "It was the summer of the Son of Sam. . . . It was like crawling down into the crater of a volcano. We were small-town guys: We'd never been anywhere."

They lasted all of 10 hours -- and then returned home.

Despite what seemed like a more appealing option -- Epperson had been accepted to the doctoral program at the University of Texas -- he turned it down because he thought it would be too seductive. "I love the libraries, the shady trees, the pretty coeds. I would've written novels about a professor living on a pretty campus."

Instead, Epperson worked as a teacher and freelance journalist back in Arkansas, reading Proust, Milton and Tolstoy and writing pages of stories he never published. But as he hit 30, his wanderlust -- and sense of "a great destiny" -- reasserted itself.

Epperson had been warned about the dangers of a "serious" novelist plunging into screenplays, and had read F. Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, but losing one's soul in Hollywood sounded glamorous. Thornton, who had just broken up with his first wife, was still playing music and, on Epperson's suggestion, considered acting. The two headed west.

A few days after getting to L.A. -- they arrived during what he calls "the hottest June in L.A. history" -- their original $500 was almost gone. One day they sat on the Santa Monica Pier, trying to decide whether they should call their mothers and ask for money to come home. But rather than turn tail, they lived for a few weeks at a relative of Thornton's near San Bernardino, then found a $90-a-week room on L.A.'s Motor Avenue.

"It was a converted motel, so there was no kitchen, just a room and a bathroom," Thornton recalled. "So we would take turns sleeping on the bed. Tom won't admit this, but I slept on the floor most of the time."

Thornton got a job at a Shakey's Pizza, which allowed him one small pizza a day for lunch, which he brought home every night, to split with Epperson, who worked at a private mail drop on Sunset.

Both drank too much and fought like brothers. "I couldn't afford to take a girl to McDonald's," Epperson said. Thornton ate so poorly he was hospitalized for malnutrition. Through the rough times, Thornton said, his friend remained dedicated and focused, writing almost every day. "We wrote a lot of screenplays together," the actor said. "Most of them never got made." Thornton brought a feel for lowlifes and drifters. "And Tom made up for my laziness and lack of discipline and lack of education about writing," he said.

"The nightmare ended in 1992," Epperson recalled. "Because it was nightmarish, for 10 years." That year, a film they had co-written, and featuring Thornton as a villain, was saved from moving straight to video by the championing of critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. "One False Move," a noirish thriller, ended up on year-end best lists, and the two Arkansas homeboys were soon taking meetings.

"I know a lot of Hollywood stories," Epperson said, "of people who've come out here, but I really think mine and Billy's was tougher than anyone I know. We didn't die. But normally people come out here, and it's tough for two months, 'until I got a very low-paying job at Universal. It took me three years to become a VP.' I kind of roll my eyes."

Patience, persistence

Though he makes a comfortable living rewriting scripts and has seen some of his projects shot, Epperson has not had a critical hit since "One False Move."

"They don't make what are called dramas much anymore -- regular movies about regular people. They're very difficult to get made. It's driven me more to write books."

And "The Kind One," while off to a good start, is published on a tiny Waterville, Maine, press, Thompson Gale, with less reach than a major house. He could bring his two careers together if "The Kind One" becomes a film, which Epperson is hoping for, and there is Hollywood interest.

Epperson has already finished another -- "a contemporary comic novel set in L.A." -- which he says is shaped by his playful, ornate Nabokov side, much as "The Kind One" is by his Hemingway side, with its spare language and reticent hero."You could say those were 15 lost years," he said of his time writing screenplays. "I don't look at it that way at all. I look at it as when Melville went off on a whaling ship: He said the whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale. For me coming to L.A. . . . . It gave me material."

For Epperson and his friends, it's time to celebrate.

"Thank God I didn't know when I was 18 it would take me 38 years to get a novel published," Epperson, still at Musso's, said earnestly. "It would have been very daunting."

scott.timberg@latimes.com

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