This Week's Reads

Seth Greenland, Philip Short, Bruce Wagner, and Jana Hensel.

The Bones

By Seth Greenland (Bloomsbury, $24.95) Frank Bones is a stand-up comic committed to the noble old idea of humor as danger. Maybe that's why he's still, at a not-well-preserved 48, a "road monkey," smoking blunts and drunk-driving his crummy Caddy to backwater clubs like Gigglemeister's and the Snicker Shack. (Those gigs he precedes by peeing out windows into open convertibles and impulsively punctuates by whipping out a pistol and taking potshots at hecklers.) "The Bones," as he royally refers to himself, envies the erstwhile Boswell who once crashed on his couch, former SoHo Weekly News scribe Lloyd Melnick, now improbably transmogrified into a Los Angeles TV comedy-writing veteran of the Seinfeld-like Fleishman Show who gets $10 million–plus for running his own new shows. Will Lloyd succumb to the Bones' demand to rewrite his last-chance "apocalyptic- spaghetti-noir" sitcom about an Eskimo who rides a walrus? Will the Bones succumb to the demand of his girlfriend, Honey Call (star of the oft-downloaded soft-core porn classic Hot Ninja Bounty Hunters), to get Lloyd to hire her as the Eskimo's nose- nuzzling sweetheart, "the temptress of the tundra"? Can self-loathing Lloyd escape the Bones, Honey, his industry bosses, and his social-climbing wife and ditch his $8,000-a-month Brentwood manse and new show Happy Endings (about a massage parlor featuring nudie cuties cavorting in Jell-O hot tubs) so he can write his neotranscendentalist novel? The answers are both elusive and predictable in this debut novel by a Hollywood comedy writer. Seth Greenland's quirky plot goes where you'd expect—the easy terrain of showbiz satire—and then veers off into picaresque crime-fiction pastiche that runs out of gas. But Greenland is chucklably witty in dozens of passages, alive to verbal music, rhythmically gifted, and exceedingly knowing in skewering his fellow show folk. Some of the roman à clef characters are so easy to identify, they're like Kerouac's friends in his books, given transparent new names that Kerouac called "funny hats." Gee, what former dirty dancer could this possibly be? "Dede Green [who] years ago had starred in a successful teen-angst picture as the not-so-pretty girl who finds love, then promptly got a nose job, making herself both unrecognizable and uncastable, since her offbeat charm had rested in her asymmetrical, slightly cubist features." Greenland isn't a good novelist yet, but he's a real writer, well worth watching. Even when there's no screen in sight. TIM APPELO Seth Greenland will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., March 22. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

By Philip Short (Henry Holt, $32.50) The whole of 1970s Cambodia's horrors has been ripe for a smart book for a long time. After all, as soon as Americans pulled out of Vietnam and our puppet government in Phnom Penh fell, Cambodia turned into the killing fields, where 1 million to 2 million Cambodians (depending on whose numbers you trust) were executed, worked to death in rice fields, or left to die from disease and starvation. It made, and still makes, little sense. Unlike the other holocausts of the last century—in Armenia, Europe, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia—where the deadly impulse was driven by fanatics seeking to ethnically cleanse their homeland, in Cambodia it was Cambodians killing other Cambodians. The massive fratricide resulted from the mutant communist ideology of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and others, who demanded that the educated and business classes of the country had to be destroyed—along with just about anyone else who was perceived to be a problem. Pol Pot and company, who ruled from 1975 to 1979, wanted an agrarian version of the workers' paradise—everyone to the rice fields, children included, in a race to make the country self-sufficient and closed off from the outside world. Three decades later, the project still seems like it was concocted and enforced by aliens. That's the bizarre netherworld and amazing story into which Philip Short plunges. You'd be right to expect an intense and intriguing tale. But Short, who wrote the well-regarded 2000 biography Mao: A Life, falls flat here. His years of research, interviews with some of the principals, and access to original sources, sadly, result in a book that is at times a disjointed history lesson but rarely the kind of book that's a must-read. PHILIP DAWDY The Chrysanthemum Palace

By Bruce Wagner (Simon & Schuster, $23) For a guy who keeps protesting that he's not just a name-dropping, celebrity-skewering, Beverly Hills–dishing Hollywood novelist, Bruce Wagner isn't working awfully hard to dispel such notions. In fact, he's not working very hard at all in his slim new novel, which concerns the flailing sons and daughters of famous parents, all of them bound into the same Los Angeles celebconomy. Narrator Bertie is a wanna-be writer who acts on the latest spin-off of his father's Star Trek–like TV franchise; new to the cast is Clea, Bertie's high-school girlfriend, now a recovering addict and damaged daughter of some tragically deceased actress; guesting on the same sci-fi series is Thad—novelist, actor, and son of a literary luminary of the larger-than-life Norman Mailer generation. All three, Bertie concedes, are still dining off their parents' table scraps, trading on their A-list surnames to advance their B-list careers. All three dream of pitching HBO with Curb Your Enthusiasm clones about their minor-celebrity lives and major parental issues. No wonder Brad and Jen broke up—who would want to raise spoiled, sponging kids like these? Still, Wagner makes his trio sympathetic and recognizably human, not just Bel Air caricatures. Most substantial among them, reliable Bertie is there to take Clea to AA meetings, to help cover up her backsliding (and affair with Thad) on the set of Starwatch: The Navigators, to enable everyone to get closer to a happy ending. But that's not why we read Wagner, nor why Wagner writes about Hollywood. Like Nathanael West, to whom he is too often and too glibly compared, he specializes in the bad outcome, the Botox apocalypse, the career-ending blunder, the swarm of locusts. Because his entertainment-world characters are rich and mighty, they must be made to suffer. A kind of leveling is necessary—karma ruthlessly and often cruelly enforced. The novel, though Calista-thin on pages and plot, is a speedy, entertaining read. Sharon Stone and other real-life celebs make cameos; we visit all the right spas and bistros in Bertie's company. Whenever possible (again, this is from the supposedly non-Hollywood novelist), Wagner pads the story of Bertie's rise and Clea and Thad's fall with long passages of dialogue (even the stellar crud of Starwatch) and backstage mechanics of how a sci-fi program is created (like we care). In a more serious vain, Wagner lays out a cosmology—perhaps appropriate to Starwatch—in which famous parents' offspring "could not escape the gravity of those legendary black holes." Here's where Wagner, in a spiritualist vein, differs from West, whose lonely-heart characters exist in profound isolation. No matter how selfish and sarcastic, Wagner's players are all made out of the same stardust; everyone's connected, and so is every action. In a cumbersome and unconvincing manner, he tries to collapse all time into the same cosmic instant. Glamorous ghosts—Thad's dead twin, a dead teen friend of Clea and Bertie's—walk among the living on the Sunset Strip. After visiting a guru who preaches the vast oneness of creation, Bertie ponders, "Life and death, past and future, each canceling the other out." Though neither he nor Palace achieves quite that perfect point of silence and abnegation, the book suggests a striving that may one day carry Wagner beyond his small Hollywood universe and into the actual stars. BRIAN MILLER After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next

By Jana Hensel (PublicAffairs, $24) When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the two very different worlds of East and West Germany suddenly became one, and the former East Germans were left with an awkward cultural adjustment during the years to come. Jana Hensel was 13 when her insular life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collided with the West. Her coming-of-age memoir, a best seller in the unified Germany, is a detailed exploration of her own conflicted transition to freedom and womanhood. Hensel describes a Leipzig girlhood suffused with Marxist-Leninist ideology; social responsibility and patriotism were constantly stressed. Pictures of Lenin and Erich Honecker lined classroom walls; families participated in state-run community activities on the weekends; and kids were groomed for dutiful, responsible professions like nursing, engineering, and teaching. After 1989, however, she and her family were confronted with a free-market economy. The once-unavailable Western products and attitudes Hensel had craved were now overwhelmingly accessible. Supermarkets replaced GDR stores that had only carried one brand of butter and one flavor of jam; luxury items like Western chocolate, liquor, Nike apparel, and fashionable jeans were no longer a novelty. Fitting in, always a crucial teen imperative, became doubly hard for the young author, since the differences between the two cultures were so pronounced; in an instant, one's origin was known by one's clothing, speech, and eating habits. In college, Hensel could easily contrast the Western-raised woman—chic, urbane, and wholly unaffected—with the Eastern woman, who "favored a potpourri of clothing manufacturers . . . , meandered when shopping and was easily distracted by advertisements." Hensel and her fellow "East-West hermaphrodites" worked hard to efface these obvious traces of their former identity. Although she appears both wistful for the GDR era (see the kindred comedy Good Bye, Lenin!) and relieved it gave way to the hip life she now lives in Berlin, Hensel oddly fails to communicate her ambivalence about the transition. After the Wall isn't really a cohesive, sequential story of Hensel's short but eventful life; it's more an inventory of how the old East German culture changed and disappeared—supported by photos of GDR propaganda, artifacts like Young Pioneer uniforms (which she wore in her youth), and samples of patriotic school essays. And her comprehensiveness about the GDR—from the educational system to sports fanaticism—can be tedious and rambling. As a study of the fallout from two cultures converging, After the Wall may be worthwhile, but its deep pull is probably best felt by the East Germans who lived it. COLLEEN SMITH

 
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