This Week's Reads

Susan Orlean, Lawrence LaRose, and Jerry Stahl

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere

By Susan Orlean (Random House, $24.95) New Yorker writers are a droll bunch, none droller than Susan Orlean, who wrote all but four of the 30 articles collected in My Kind of Place for the magazine between 1987 and 2002. She is like Mr. Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited: "He was the Victorian tourist, solid and patronizing, for whose amusement these foreign things were paraded." As much as I loathe that faintly ironic, superior New Yorker sensibility, there's no denying Orlean's ability to whip her wry observations on anything at all—a grocery store in Queens, a trailer park in Portland, a trek up Mount Fuji—into frothy, super- readable confections. Her stuff is, in fact, so fun and easy to read that you might not notice that Orlean rarely has much of anything to say about her subjects. Her formula is to string together vivid, offbeat details she has collected on her subjects ("the guy was wearing a Budweiser hat and rubber boots that had articulated toes") in a rambling—but, again, highly readable—first-person account that, rather than coming to any conclusion, trails off in a way meant to be suggestive and literary. A typical final sentence: "Juan wanted to keep hitting, but his father said it was time to go home." As pure descriptive writing, her work is brilliant, but there is something strangely hollow and incomplete about it. OK, I admit I did enjoy the book, so I guess that means I fall within the Middle-Class-Boob demographic that goes for this kind of thing. And Orlean—whose 2000 book, The Orchid Thief, provided the inspiration for the movie Adaptation—is damn good at her job. But that doesn't change the fact that her job is to supply middlebrow chortles for the bourgeoisie. DAVID STOESZ Susan Orlean will appear at Third Place Books at 6:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 8. Gutted: Down to the Studs in My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life

By Lawrence LaRose (Bloomsbury, $24.95) There's no situation more dangerous than a man, a hammer, and a house—and yet no position more tempting for a guy who feels the rest of his life is out of control. Things will be different with the house, author Lawrence LaRose and his wife, Susan, both believe. Finding a dilapidated and atypically humble 1950 Hamptons abode for the "bargain" price of $350,000, the newlyweds think that completely renovating—i.e., almost completely demolishing—the shack will lend stability to their lives. Laid off from his dot-com job just as the market crashes, LaRose needs something do with himself. Blueprints, contractors, power tools, and Home Depot—it all seems so simple. But as LaRose entertainingly discovers while coping with nosy neighbors, intransigent zoning officials, and recalcitrant subcontractors, "It makes me wonder if we are renovating the house or if the house is renovating us." His wife remains in Manhattan during the week, working to support them, while the author drops out of the yuppie economy to pound nails and lift Sheetrock with the proles on inept local construction crews laboring on profligate parvenu mansions. The experience is nothing like Trading Places and all those quick-and-easy home reno shows on TV, and LaRose freely admits to being no Ty Pennington. He mocks his own frequent mistakes—including the inevitable encounter with the business end of a nail gun—and vainly tries to save face with the more experienced contractors working alongside him. Like the couple that has a kid to save their shaky marriage, the entire enterprise places predictable strains on Lawrence and Susan. They bicker over money, paint colors, and bathroom tiling. A twofold narrative tension emerges as the reader wonders (1) if the house will ever be completed, and (2) whether they'll be divorced by the time it is. Yet somehow they manage to salvage their marriage and rebuild their house, bonding while shingling and at the hardware store where, LaRose rhetorically asks, how can you not love a woman who "now knows the difference between eighths and sixteenths on the tape measure?" Anyone looking to remodel their Phinney Ridge bungalow would do well to read this book first; the dos and don'ts amusingly apply to both relationships and remodels. BRIAN MILLER I, Fatty

By Jerry Stahl (Bloomsbury, $23.95) By 1921, Fatty Arbuckle was the biggest man in Hollywood—literally. Not only was he about 300 pounds, but he was the first star to make a million bucks a year, and if critics preferred his rival Chaplin, the masses would rather see a baby-faced giant take pratfalls and crash into things. A botched carbuncle operation got him hooked on heroin, which didn't help his brandy habit. Now all anybody remembers about Arbuckle is the disgraceful accusation that he raped the allegedly angelic actress Virginia Rappe at a debauched Hollywood party in San Francisco's tony St. Francis Hotel, killing her with a Coke bottle and/or his enormous privates. The real disgrace was Fatty's three trials, which entirely acquitted him but fueled the first national tabloid feeding frenzy by Hearst and worse. Jerry Stahl, who started out as a TV screenwriter with a $300,000-a-year heroin habit, won fame with his Hollywood memoir Permanent Midnight, so he's just the guy to try to bring Fatty back to life. In a way, his novel, a memoir narrated by the star, slakes the same thirst for dirt that Hearst's newspaper coverage of the trial did. His Fatty talks in gum-snapping period tough-guy argot—he sounds like a cross between James Ellroy and those 1930s underground smut comics Art Spiegelman apotheosized in his book Tijuana Bibles. Refuting the prosecution's charge that Rappe, whose lovely face adorned the best-selling sheet music for "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," was angelic, Fatty depicts her as anybody's sweetheart. At the Keystone Studio, Fatty declares, "she'd given half the boys gonorrhea and the other half lice." And "she's had more bones buried in her than Forest Lawn!" And "The girl's had more crabs than the Fulton Street Fish Market." Nor is Rappe––who apparently was a quasi-prostitute who died from a botched abortion—the only badly behaved person in Fatty's Hollywood. Her death is witnessed by a professional perjurer, "malevolent Maude Delmont," who willfully misinterprets Fatty's utterly nonsexual but woefully misinformed attempt to revive Rappe by applying a chilled champagne bottle to her clitoris, as Buster Keaton had instructed him. Tinseltown turns out to be naughty, as Stahl's Fatty tells it. Mabel Normand mischievously micturates in Mack Sennett's lap, and toots cocaine until she's a babbling nut job. Fatty dishes as lasciviously as any tabloid hack: "A rash of scandals had been plaguing the movie business, beginning with Charlie Chaplin's marriage to his child bride, the pregnant and 16-year-old Mildred Harris. Then Mary Pickford divorced her movie-star hubby, Owen Moore, and married Douglas Fairbanks five minutes later. AMERICA'S SWEETHEART A HUSSY, the headlines screamed. Meanwhile, at Famous Players-Lasky, Mary's baby brother, Jack, was implicated when his lovely wife, Olive Thomas, swallowed arsenic and killed herself. Unable, according to rumors, to tolerate another day of her husband's out-of-control cocaine addiction. To make matters worse for the Lasky lot, the police arrested the notorious 'Captain Spaulding, Drug Dispenser to the Stars' [the man who inspired the Groucho Marx song]." The murder of Normand's boyfriend, director William Desmond Taylor, amid his Hearst-alleged collection of 500 annotated panties didn't help the movie colony's reputation. Somebody had to do public penance, and corrupt moguls elected Fatty Arbuckle. Stahl did admirable research, and he does get us plausibly partway inside Arbuckle's tormented head. He certainly knows what heroin, withdrawal, fame, and shame feel like. But there's little immediacy in the prose—it feels like an essay. Stahl can't scale the heights of literary ventriloquism like Nick Tosches did in his Dean Martin bio. The Johnny Depp movie version of the book is apt to be better. Still, Tosches loves Stahl's book, and you have to admit it's one hell of a swift, sleazy read. TIM APPELO

 
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