A few years ago, I had a rare experience: I read a contemporary novel I wish I’d written.
I knew from the very first two sentences:
Julian Ripps was too fat to be reclining in a hot tub between a pair of naked women, unless he was very rich or they were prostitutes. He wasn’t, but they were.
But all is not well in the hot tub next to the infinity pool on the flagstone deck high above Los Angeles. The hookers depart, leaving Julian to deal with the aftermath of a two cheeseburger dinner and the possibility — no, the likelihood — of a criminal indictment for money laundering. The myocardial infarction hits him in the tub, and, four pages into the novel, he’s dead.
We next find ourselves in the ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel, site of a Bar Mitzvah. As you might expect, there are chocolate fountains and a Vanity Fair photographer and guests who behave “as if they were at a fund-raiser that just happened to feature klezmer music during the cocktail hour.” The father had his corporate communications guys write his speech, the kids get henna tattoos, and the music starts with the voice of a rapper “whose shrewdest career move involved getting hot.” But it’s the “motivational dancer” on each arm of the Bar Mitzvah boy that signals we are in the hands of a comic master. And in case we’re slow on the uptake, consider the chapter’s end, as everyone dances — “in a celebratory mosh” — to these “incantational” words:
She a ho, she a ho, she a mothafuckin’ ho, ho-ahhh…
It gets better. Among the guests at the Bar Mitzvah are Marcus Ripps, brother of the dead pimp, and his wife Jan. They live in Van Nuys. He’s had a dull managerial job at a novelty toy factory for fifteen years. She owns Ripcord, a moribund boutique. Their son’s on scholarship at an exclusive private school where “a sixth-grader was selling his Ritalin to a high school sophomore.” They’re being crushed by an $80,000 home equity loan. They haven’t had sex for a month, and when Marcus, in frustration, tries to part Jan’s thighs, it’s “like trying to crack a safe that had no combination.”
Very quickly — Greenland is not one for pretty flights of prose that an editor dare not remove — the factory is history. (“To everything there is a season: a time to expand, a time to downsize, a time to move the entire operation to the Far East.”) But when a door closes, another opens, this time to Shining City, a dry cleaner on Melrose that Julian has bequeathed to Marcus. (They had not been close: “Marcus remembered Julian as someone who took the noble out of savage.”)
Marcus visits the establishment. A woman walks in and hands him an envelope filled with cash. Slowly, he realizes. The lawyer hadn’t told him Julian was a “pip” — he’d said “pimp”. And now Marcus can be that guy. It was “a disorienting sensation, as if he’d been exploring a Pacific atoll and had come upon a production of Porgy and Bess being performed by a cast of house cats.”
I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, so let me just point out that — unless you are a devout believer in almost any religion — you will have a hard time seeing Marcus and Jan as “bad” people for what they do next. Indeed, even if you are morality incarnate, you have a hard time keeping a straight face as Greenland serves up hilarious scene after hilarious scene. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
For Marcus and Jan are, like many of us, just trying to hold it together, make it through and leave a little something for their kid. But what do you say to a woman who tells you: “Dates, Marcus. I have SUV to pay off. Some guy who likes Greek would be good. Juice told you that costs double, right? Triple if he’s Arab.” How do you deal with a naked corpse handcuffed to a bed? And what happens to your philosophy of life when you discover a connection between your sexual frequency and your checking account balance?
Beneath our thin veneer of personality, Greenland suggests, lies an equally thin veneer of self. That’s not a judgment, it’s just how it is for besieged suburban American families — and many others. You can get all dreary about that, or you can write a book with killer lines and credibly funny scenes. And a pimp you can love? Believe it.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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