This Week's Reads

Bret Easton Ellis, Karen Fisher, and Rodney Rothman.

Lunar Park

By Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, $24.95) Even an enfant terrible has to grow up sometime, though Bret Easton Ellis has been putting it off for as long as possible. Now 41, his author photo for his fifth novel and the face in recent magazine spreads don't correspond too well. He's obviously done some living since Less Than Zero made him a star in 1985. Yet the discrepancy between the handsomer bad-boy novelist and his present, middle-aged self isn't a form of denial at all. In his best and most enjoyable read since Zero, Ellis has created a much more ambitious book that mocks his callow youth ("raving, coked-up, sucking back another Stoli"). He does this by writing Lunar Park in the first- person, assuming the voice of one Bret Easton Ellis, a bad-boy novelist coasting on his old reputation and wrestling with some even older personal demons. Despite this literary device (tried often before by much better writers), Lunar Park isn't exactly a literary novel. Yet it is highly entertaining—particularly in its long "autobiographical" opening chapter. However much the real Ellis has been trashed by critics and gossips in the past, he outdoes them all here, sending up his alter ego without mercy. "Look, being America's greatest writer under forty is a lot to live up to," whines this petulant Ellis. One of his college writing students has to correct his reference to Proust and the tangerine. (Madeleine? D'oh!) He passes out at the Golden Globes; the FBI keeps a file on him; he greedily contemplates a lurid new novel called Teenage Pussy, declaring, "I would still be enjoying huge success and notoriety while my better-behaved peers were languishing on 'Where Are They Now?' Web sites." This Ellis also now has a sullen teen son, Robby, fathered in an old fling with a Hollywood actress. Craving stability for herself, she asks him to marry her. Needing stability for himself, he agrees, and they set up a kind of family recovery ward in the leafy green suburbs outside New York, on a street called Elsinore Lane. Is something rotten in the state of Ellis' cul-de-sac? His son barely acknowledges him. He and his wife aren't sleeping together. And the creepy toy bird he got—through his drug dealer—for his stepdaughter seems to be slaughtering neighborhood pets at night. Oh, and a gruesome killing spree has broken out in his quiet enclave, modeled on American Psycho. A cop comes calling, and Ellis falls off the wagon. Ellis our narrator insists every detail of a 12-day breakdown is true, including the Steven King–style horror and family ghosts (chiefly that of his remote, drunk, disapproving father). By the time his McMansion has started acting like The Amityville Horror, Ellis decides, "I understood there was another world underneath the one we lived in." He's right—that nether realm is memory. Unlike Stephen King, Ellis the writer has family wounds to heal. The goal is forgiveness, not gore. Says Ellis, "I was now my father. Robby was now me." It's a rather late turn—for both Ellises—into sincerity. Lunar Park is dedicated to Ellis' dead father and dead lover, and there's no denying his ultimately heartfelt intent. (In Zero, some may recall, the hero had issues with his dead mother.) I can't say it's successful, or that he carries off his final big showstopper of a run-on sentence successfully, but you can at least respect his intentions. He hasn't exactly embraced family or middle age or the suburbs or maturity, but he does evince a certain disgust toward American Psycho, Columbine kids, and his own puerile, famous self. And you're not sure which Ellis, the author or the caricature, has this to say: "My wistful attitude about drugs and fame—the delight I took in feeling sorry for myself—had turned into a hard sadness, and the future no longer looked even remotely plausible. Just one thing seemed to be racing toward me: a blackness, a grave, the end." Instead, I'd call Lunar Park a beginning. Maybe it's taken Bret Easton Ellis five novels to finally begin his second act. BRIAN MILLER Bret Easton Ellis will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., Sept. 6. A Sudden Country

By Karen Fisher (Random House, $24.95) Northwest author Karen Fisher's debut is literary fiction based loosely on old family documents—not a historical novel, as its setting might lead you to believe. A Sudden Country is a dreamy, ethereal story of two wayward souls who meet by chance during the 1847 Oregon migration, bringing scandal to the dusty trails of covered wagons and tired children. After his Nez Perce wife leaves him for another man and his children die of smallpox, James MacLaren begins the bitter trek to find her in Oregon. During a secret, violent act, MacLaren meets Lucy Mitchell, who is traveling west with her husband and children. The pull between MacLaren and Lucy is instantaneous, and he is hired to accompany them during the passage. MacLaren's grief is unrestrained and blazing, and he is initially wary of Lucy's fierce but equally sad presence. Physically energized by him, Lucy wishes she could be so free. A Hudson's Bay Company trader, he marries a Native American, lives from the land, refuses to respect religion or convention. MacLaren has "seen things Adam never named," we're told. For her part, Lucy is neither a prim 19th-century wife nor a burgeoning feminist. She is a pioneer mother who skins buffalo, bathes in streams, feeds and clothes her children, and tries to preserve the spirit left inside her—a spirit jolted awake by MacLaren. If this sounds like the outline for a made-for-TNT Western, Country is executed with much more craft—Fisher's prose is pensive and serious. One of the elderly emigrants tells MacLaren, "People are like stones. Weak and strong, but none without a fault. Life gets in and cleaves us, every one. Slow like ice. Quick like fire." Abrupt shifts in plot can also get tangled in Fisher's poetic passages, making it sometimes hard to get your bearings as a reader. Once you feel comfortable with her style of storytelling, rich in metaphors and flashbacks, Country is full and wise and not bound by any century. COLLEEN SMITH Karen Fisher will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 7. Early Bird

By Rodney Rothman (Simon & Schuster, $23) In his diverting account of a six-month "premature retirement" in Boca Raton, Fla., humorist Rodney Rothman has an unsettling realization: "When you get older, you are still the exact same person." This is a double-edged sword, 94-year-old stand-up comic Amy Ballinger informs him. Referring to her fellow retirees, she says: "If they were nice when they were young, then they're nice when they die. Asshole when they were young, asshole dead." Though his subject would suit David Sedaris perfectly, Rothman more closely resembles David Foster Wallace, circa A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again—only with less mania, and thus less of a tendency to overwork the humor. The book is both funny and eye-opening because he spends time with retirees on their terms: playing shuffleboard, bingo, and canasta; seeing a musical about menopause; taking in a Yoko Ono art exhibit; and eating baked scrod. Though Rothman finds truth in certain stereotypes (the elderly, on fixed incomes, do love a bargain), most of his new friends defy his—and our—preconceptions. Ballinger is raunchy; a 75-year-old Romanian sexpot is "sultry" (and proves it by trying to seduce the author); and a 63-year-old former heroin dealer speaks with paternal pride of his pot-dealing son. Yet the funniest chapter, "Basherte" (Yiddish for "soul mate"), is about Rothman himself. In desperate need of same-age companionship, preferably female, the author flies the Boca coop for a Miami Beach mixer sponsored by JDate.com (Match.com for Jews). Scoping out the women, he observes that "every possible tool has been implemented to reverse the kink of each strand of hair," and that "tankers full of hair gel have been deployed to hide every last bald spot" on the men. "Basically, it's a party full of Jews looking for Jews where nobody wants to look Jewish," he concludes. A similar fake-out phenomenon occurs among Boca's seniors. They're old, but they don't want to feel old, or look old, or hang out with people who feel or look old. Yet Early Bird makes a pretty convincing case for the golden years. If you're young, it should allay at least some of your fears about aging; if you're old, and not an asshole, you'll probably love it. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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