April 21, 2005
When I go out of town, I often take a novel or two with me, knowing that a plane ride remains one of the few places to get serious reading done. Recently, I read two novels, Seth Greenland's "The Bones" (Bloomsbury) and Bruce Bauman's "And the Word Was" (Other Press), which made strong impressions about why, every so often, you need to get out of town. Both novels concern characters who believe their lives are at a dead end, and who leave their homes for experiences that, in the end, allow them to return to a life less examined but worth living.
Greenland's "The Bones," although revolving around the lives of a downwardly spiraling stand-up comic and an upwardly mobile sitcom writer, is not so much a Hollywood novel as it is a novel about frustration, contempt, social and artistic ambition, talent (or the lack thereof); how they play out in our lives, and what it is one set of characters must do to exorcize the self-images that have come to define them. So it stands to reason that my own friendship with Seth and envy of his novel's success (rave reviews in The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, movie option by John Calley at Sony for David Mamet, etc.) should keep me from writing about "The Bones" -- but it won't:
Frank Bones, a brilliant, dark stand-up comic, a genius of self-destruction, has been cast as an Eskimo in a TV pilot. Lloyd Melnick, a former journalist for a New York alternative weekly who wrote a feature on Frank and crashed for a brief moment on his couch, is now a hugely well-paid sitcom writer with a resentment-inspiring development deal, all by virtue of having been on the writing staff of "The Fleishman Show" (a Seinfeld-like phenomenon), a show whose co-creator wrote every episode.
Melnick finds himself trapped in a life and a lifestyle he never wanted. At the same time, Frank Bones has been "The Bones" for so long he has never paused to think beyond the next pain-dulling pleasure or put-down. They both look to the other for their salvation. Melnick feels he can redeem his sitcom work by writing a novel -- or a book -- about Frank. Frank begs Melnick to write a pilot with him, or at least punch-up the Eskimo show. Instead they end up together in Tulsa, Okla., and on the run in Mexico.
Greenland's Los Angeles will be familiar to all who inhabit the Westside -- and compelling to all who don't. It is tempting to play "guess who?" with characters, events, places, companies and organizations -- but that is a distraction from Greenland's prose stylings -- the finely wrought sentences, the razor-sharp puns and references, the laugh-out-loud absurdities captured by his unerring eye and the unrelenting rhythm that animates the story. "The Bones" is a literary novel that takes its humor seriously, but is funny about the absurdities of present L.A. modern life.
In L.A. author Bruce Bauman's "And the Word Was," Dr. Neil Downs, who describes himself simply as "a Jew," flees New York for India and work as resident physician for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. He leaves behind his wife and the aftermath of a high school shooting in which his son was murdered.
In New Delhi, Neil seeks out Levi Furtstenblum, an aged Holocaust survivor, a writer and philosopher (think Primo Levi meets Jacques Monod) to ask how one goes on living. At the same time he meets the intelligent and beautiful Indian activist Holika, who draws him into her prominent and wealthy Indian family's soap opera -- their personal, political, financial and even medical conflicts and dramas.
The sights and smells of India, and the customs of the cross-section of people Neil meets, are rendered so convincingly that you will come to think you've lived in India as well. Neil's spiritual journey and how he finds his way back to his wife, his home, and to his own sense of self, makes "And the Word Was" as rewarding in parts as it is intellectually challenging in others.
In both "The Bones" and "And the Word Was," the main characters go to extremes, and push themselves to transgress their way beyond their own comfort zones, all in order to feel capable of leading the lives they led before.
Why do these authors feel the need to have their characters leave town? There is more going on here than simple wanderlust or the eternal quest of the wandering Jew. Is it simply a matter of shattering the illusion of stasis that Los Angeles' beautiful weather breeds? Or is it the desperation of no escape from our lives, even in the face of, in one case disaster, or in the other success? Which of us could ever board "that midnight train to Georgia" with our heads held high? Who could live with the epitaph: "Superstar, but he didn't get far"?
Perhaps we need look at this in context. The story of a character who leaves his home, journeys to a foreign place, and then returns to his home and to his wife a wiser, humbler man is an odyssey that has been told as long as -- well, since Homer recounted "The Odyssey" itself. The journey is not, in of itself, the path to self-knowledge.
Sometimes leaving L.A. is the only way to realize what you're missing.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.