As commentators never tire of reminding us, Southern California is a place unto itself. Especially the Hollywood Hills. Up there, the movies' gravitational pull eclipses the ocean's daily suck—spawning a society that is sun-blasted but vitamin-deficient, numbed by its good fortune into a trance of melancholy, like the figure in David Hockney's famous painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).
The day-trader hero of A.M. Homes' stylish fourth novel, This Book Will Save Your Life (Viking, $24.95, 372 pages), could easily be the man from this picture. Rich beyond belief, Richard lives like a 21st-century pasha in his ultra-modern house overlooking Los Angeles. A nutritionist designs his meals, a trainer sculpts his physique, and a house-cleaner makes all the dirt go away. Every morning, he runs on the treadmill, while his pretty neighbor does laps in her pool.
This tableau is shattered when Richard feels a pain in his chest. In the wake of his brush with mortality, Richard's ordered life crumbles around him—quite literally. A sinkhole begins to swallow his house, a weeping mother accosts him in a supermarket, and his estranged son closes in on L.A. Before long, Richard finds himself trying to make amends with his decades of selfishness.
This kind of middle-age meltdown has already animated films like Lost in Translation or, more appropriately, Steve Martin's L.A. Story. Like that movie, Homes sticks to a small palette of theme—irony and loss—which she layers in an exquisitely unusual portrait of a man attempting to swim in the other direction of a society's decadence. "We live in a time when no one wants to remember," says an aging hippie to Richard. "Fallout accumulates." When the inevitable happens, and faultlines slip, the unobservant simply say, "Only in L.A." As this book aptly reveals, they really should know better.
A.M. Homes will read from
on Tuesday, May 2, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free. John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.