Clean living

Seth GREENLAND'S very funny second novel shows how easily money rubs out our naive notions of right and wrong, especially in a city like L.A., where trying to be decent can seem not merely foolish but self-destructive and self-indulgent. Greenland's hero, Marcus Ripps, starts out as a middle-class guy with a wife, a son and a two-story, three-bedroom house in an unfashionable neighborhood. "No one aspired to live in Van Nuys," Greenland writes, with an aphoristic brilliance that, as far I am concerned, is customary. "In a gamy corner of the San Fernando Valley, it was a hardscrabble neighborhood of mini-malls, fast food joints, and cheap motels with rooms by the hour. The air was thick with skyborne detritus, and in the summer the mercury spiked to a hundred and twenty degrees."

Marcus' life hasn't panned out the way he hoped. He has a philosophy degree from Berkeley and once counted on a career of entrepreneurial success, but he works instead for a friend from high school, Roon Primus, the malicious baron of Wazoo Toys. Marcus toils whereas Roon has "ascended to fawning profiles in business journals and a palatial house in Bel-Air." In one scene -- a surreal and scathingly evoked bar mitzvah -- Marcus spots Roon greeting "a tall elegantly dressed man with a smile like a cash register. It took Marcus a moment to realize that it was the governor of California."

Marcus rubs shoulders with wealth and fame while himself enjoying neither. His son, Nathan, attends a private school on a scholarship, and his wife, Jan, is partner in a small boutique on Van Nuys Boulevard. The seeming stability of the Ripps family hangs by a thread, and this breaks when Roon announces one day that he's decided to outsource Wazoo Toys to China. He casually instructs Marcus to learn Mandarin, but instead Marcus quits. Debts mount and the family's equity line dwindles.

Greenland isn't interested in taking us inside the terror of middle-class economic crisis. Marcus remains an optimist, and the reader never really fears that he's heading off the rails like, say, a John Cheever character. Instead, Greenland throws his protagonist a narrative lifeline with a classic Hollywood twist: Julian, Marcus' black sheep brother, dies and leaves Marcus a dry-cleaning business named Shining City in West Hollywood. Shining City, Marcus soon discovers, is a front for an escort service. Marcus grits his teeth and becomes a pimp, determined to bring "the brightest standards of American management practice to the business of prostitution."

The hookers, he realizes, are mostly like himself: forced for various reasons to take an illegal route because other dreams failed. Soon he's offering them healthcare and 401(k) plans. When Jan discovers what's going on she's outraged but realizes there's really no alternative. She joins the business, sets up a website and a reading group, renames the business Smart Tarts and encourages the women to read "Anna Karenina" between tricks. Jan's partner, Plum, also wades into the sexual fray, finding her true metier as a dominatrix.

All this is pretty delicious, although the most biting part of "Shining City" comes later on, when Greenland finds fertile ground for his satire in the mostly ignored subject of L.A.'s non-Hollywood dough. The Rippses are befriended by the Vandeveers -- "Turbo Mom" Corinne, who does good works and dreams of bringing Buddhism into the California prison system, and her husband, Dewey, a "blue-jeaned arbitrage potentate" who wears loafers and is joined to his BlackBerry as if it were a prosthetic device. The Vandeveers live in a grand gated home in Coldwater Canyon, and when Marcus and Jan go there for a dinner party, the other well-heeled guests include "a snack tycoon and his overweight wife, a parking lot magnate and spouse number three (she had formerly been his masseuse) and the owner of a large vineyard in Napa and his wife, who had been a movie star in the eighties and now devoted herself to animal rescue and drinking."

Marcus and Jan are out of their depth. In the end, oddly, "Shining City" turns out to be a novel about the warped pursuit of family values. The Rippses desire decency, and they feel guilty about what they're doing in ways that their new rich friends simply don't. Morality, for the Rippses, proves not to be a moveable feast. Nothing makes Marcus so happy as being able to provide Nathan with a better bar mitzvah.

The tone here -- not as caustic as in Greenland's first novel, "The Bones," which featured the crazy downward spiral of a stand-up comic -- recalls the more good-natured novels of Evelyn Waugh ("Scoop," say). Greenland, a playwright and screenwriter as well as a novelist, knows the brutal rungs of L.A.'s social ladder, and he takes us on a breezy tour, even if some of the expository sentences drop with a leaden foot. "The newspapers and local television had given big play to the story," he writes when Marcus at last gets busted, "and several reporters eating at a nearby table stole glances in his direction. Marcus played with his limp chef's salad and tried to ignore them." Greenland seems disinterested in this kind of basic narrative glue and happier writing prose Ferraris, lines that zing with speed and wit. Sometimes the two modes combine to excellent effect: "It was April now, and Marcus had been in business since autumn. But the ensuing months had not inured him to the unease he felt while having a frank sexual discussion with anyone other than his wife. So it was with no little discomfort that he asked Plum whether she minded being urinated on."

The book's uneven and sometimes lumpy texture is disconcerting, but this actually makes for a deeper story. Greenland slows us down sometimes and makes us think about a plot in which the twists keep coming -- some excellent, others as if programmed by Robert McKee. "Shining City," then, is not without flaws, but readers will be seduced by the combination of narrative skill, speed and sharp-pointed wit. *

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