You probably already know L.A. is a vast wasteland of commercialism, desperate wannabes, junkies and vapid industry zombies. But New York-based author Tony O'Neill's going to tell you anyway in his novel Sick City (Harper Perennial, 374 pages, $13.99). O'Neill's L.A., seen through the eyes of several equally morally vacant protagonists whose stories sometimes overlap, is one we've read before from Bret Easton Ellis—and in James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning. Even Clean and Serene, the rehab facility where two of our protagonists meet, feels an awful lot like the institution in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. O'Neill's story isn't dull or contrived, it's just not revolutionary.
The story hinges on two drug addicts, Jeffrey and Randal, who've inherited a sex tape of the late actress Sharon Tate getting gang-banged. They want to sell the tape for millions in order to escape the desperation and loneliness that plagues them in Hollywood. As the story progresses—and it doesn't really, until about 100 pages in—it becomes clear that these two tragic figures are so consumed by their addiction that they're doomed to run around L.A. witnessing murder scenes and violent drug deals.
Some characters, such as celebrity rehab doctor and talk-show host Dr. Mike, who's secretly dealing to and sleeping with a transvestite named Champagne, are colorful and inventive. Others are two-dimensional representations of drugged-out city-dwellers and criminals, fixtures of modern fiction other writers have already used to comment on the emptiness of American society. These characters might be more dynamic if O'Neill told us how they felt about things or explained their actions, but O'Neill writes about them shooting people, snorting coke and violently raping prostitutes in the same tone that he would if they were walking over to the kitchen and fixing themselves a bowl of cereal. O'Neill's writing style is easy to digest, characterized by simple sentences littered with allusions and broken into short paragraphs strung together by dramatic line breaks. Perhaps this is a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of his characters' lives, another echo of Ellis.
The novel, despite its unoriginality, is still a wildly fun read, one that those fascinated by L.A. will love. The plot, which whirls through the city on a tour of crime scenes, grimy sexual acts and drug deals, makes for a page-turner. But you'll end up no different than you were when you started—entirely sure you'll never leave Portland for L.A.
Tony O'Neill reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, July 30. Free.