Blood and Wine

Two comic novels—one about food, the other about murder—take L.A. out of Noir’s long shadow

Name a satirical novel set in Los Angeles that isn’t about the film industry. Hmmm. Exaggeration, satire’s favorite special effect, demands a reference point, and Hollywood’s rituals, like British royalty’s, are peculiar and well publicized. They’re easy to blow out of proportion, the better to deflate. But to those who don’t live here, the rest of L.A. is a freeway and a beach—too flat to pump up, too languorous for a rapier wit to probe with much hope of finding a vein. Our Atwater Villages and Panorama Cities may be full of comic possibility, but who would ever know? In this attenuated urban archipelago, the only common ground most novelists find is the apocalyptic: earthquake, fire, mud, pollutants, and weird religion. All that focus on our afflictions has left the city most Angelenos inhabit stranded, fictionally speaking, in the shadow of Noir.

Two pointed and funny novels make a case for turning on the light: Nancy Spiller’s Entertaining Disasters (Counterpoint, 296 pages, $14.95), the story of a yuppie food writer who’s afraid to cook, and Charlie Huston’s The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Ballantine, 336 pages, $25), about a Gen-Y slacker who discovers his career path in crime-scene cleanup work. At first glance the books are worlds apart. Spiller’s narrator, FW, is a proper Angeleno. Over 40, tolerably married, militantly childless, she can taste the difference between a Piedmont truffle and a Lithuanian ringer, discourse on the Javanese concept of spiritual equilibrium, and provide the number of a reliable catch-and-release skunk trapper.

Huston’s protagonist, Web Goodhue, is the kind of snarky post-adolescent whom middle-aged achievers yearn to slap. Literate he may be—Anna Karenina, he claims, is “indisputably great trashy fiction”—but he spends most of the few hours he’s not asleep reading horror magazines and splitting hairs. When a friend mentions that Web doesn’t have a car, he protests: “I have parts in sufficient quantity and variety that when assembled in their proper order they will constitute a car. I have, de facto, a car.” But not—and this was the friend’s point—transportation.

What these disparate narrators share is a tone at once acrid and expansive, like the sunshine-infused, particulately mattered air around us. They see flaws everywhere (who wouldn’t in all this light?), and they have no compunction about serving judgment. Yet the edge in their observations is more X-Acto knife than box cutter, and the wince of humorous recognition it produces is theirs as well as ours. To live in L.A.’s amped-up sprawl, they suggest, demands canniness and self-knowledge. Those qualities are the source of the buoyancy in their screeds, of the affectionate swagger. Los Angeles, for better or worse, is home—intimately known, freely chosen—and in these wary comedies it gets a 21st-century voice. Not Noir, but ’Tude.

The culinary beat has provided FW with a terraced house in Glendale—ideal for alfresco dining—and a trove of one-upping recipes like those she learned “in a hilltop villa in Umbria.” A guest might be intimidated, but FW has found the secret to throwing the perfect dinner party: Don’t. Do it all in your imagination. Not that anyone reading her lush descriptions of garden suppers with home-crafted croutons and a sprinkling of best-selling writers would ever know: “Food and entertaining was an area in which I could sound authoritative, intimate, and truthful while perpetrating pure fiction. No one checked. Everyone took my word for it. Why would I lie about anything as sacred as the pleasures of the table?”

As Entertaining Disasters opens, though, FW is in a pickle. The glossy editor of Savoir Eats! has requested an invitation to one of her famous dinners, and FW has agreed, visions of lucrative future assignments dancing in her head. Her first worry—corralling other presentable guests, a procedure she begins months in advance: “I wasn’t trying to make this a business evening, but I wasn’t an  idiot either, and when you went to this much effort in Los Angeles, it had better, like freeways, lead somewhere.” Closer to the event she must insist that one attendee, parent of a noxious six-year-old, find a baby-sitter, pray that Whole Foods has the squabs she’s preordered (it doesn’t), and fight off various home invaders, including a swarm of bees.

To complicate things further, her older sister—long estranged, icily sarcastic, and when last seen, still dressing like a teenage tart—has announced she’s arriving on the day of the party and not left a call-back number. Unsurprisingly, two nights before the party FW is in solo communion with a bottle of pinot noir. “No one drinks in Los Angeles,” she informs us. “Angelenos believe that an hour lost to alcoholic buzz is self-abuse, an opportunity missed to bring you a step closer to that Three-Picture Deal, starring role, or prime piece of real estate.” By the end of the bottle she’s broken a faucet and cut her arm.

No problem. The editor has canceled in favor of a junket to Paris. As for the party, FW can’t quite bring herself to call it off . In what could be a trendy device, Spiller ends each chapter of Entertaining Disasters with a recipe. Some are straightforward, even tempting, others fanciful, like “Tolstoy’s Fieldworker’s Delight” (short version: bread and water). Their inclusion, it turns out, is fair warning. Spiller is no more interested than her narrator in keeping fact and fiction rigidly sequestered. Like FW, she is an Angeleno by adoption, has written about white truffles and Italian food touring (for the Los Angeles Times Magazine), was a feature writer at a Silicon Valley daily (San Jose Mercury News), and has a dog named Dalai.

Entertaining Disasters, Spiller’s first novel, isn’t all sauce and irony. As the day of the dinner approaches, FW’s airy monologues on the trials of L.A. hostessing and homemaking are intercut more frequently by memories of her fractured suburban childhood. In these dark flashbacks a picture emerges of a mother by turns jaunty, erudite, violent, and plagued by hallucinations, and of a father so concerned with making his own escape that he maroons his children in a falling-down house. Cooking, we begin to see, allows FW to do what her family could not—meld warring ingredients into a harmonious whole. The looming dinner party is her bid for psychic as well as social redemption. Whether Spiller is drawing on recollection or imagination hardly matters. Entertaining Disasters offers memoir’s most potent pairing: the child’s eye, sensual and vindictive, with the grownup’s aching heart. One moment FW exults in tracking peas from her parent’s hurled plate “across the linoleum, under the hutch.” The next she views her mother’s hair post-shock treatment: “shot through with gray as if a ghost were entangled in it, a fugitive escaping the incessant onslaught of voltage.” It’s a testament to Spiller’s skill as a narrator that tragedy and comedy begin to seem like a natural couple and that feeding a gathering of friends is the ultimate modern ordeal.

Razor-tongued young men like Web Goodhue are a Huston franchise. In eight novels published over four years he’s created two genre mashes—hard-boiled vampire and pulpnoir (the latter his own term)—and developed a passionate following among hip action fans. Huston was abandoning an acting career in New York when he wrote Caught Stealing in 2004. Its protagonist, Hank Thompson, a small-town high school baseball hero sidelined as a Lower East Side bartender, is mistakenly targeted by the Russian mafia. Huston’s gift for inventive violence in seedy locales fueled two more Thompson books involving well-armed opponents in Mexico and Las Vegas. Then he introduced Joe Pitt, narrator of four books, including Already Dead and Every Last Drop. Pitt, a tough-guy detective in a futurish Manhattan, is also— no fault of his own—a vampire.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is Huston’s second novel since moving to Los Angeles, the first set in this city, and it’s possible, despite the caustic portrait of Web’s father as a pontificating novelist turned screenwriter, to detect a slightly mellower mood. Web’s buddies have the urge to slap him, too—he doesn’t pay rent, cadges meals, insults his roommate’s girl, and thinks “my bad” covers everything. But they know what we only gradually learn—that Web lives with the memory of out-of-nowhere violence and the weight of having failed to protect someone in his care. Joining a trauma cleanup team is a desperation gig when his credit hits no return. These are the people who arrive at messy death scenes—gunshot victims, week-old corpses in bachelor apartments—after the police and the coroner are through. But Web finds himself almost liking the work. Removing all traces of decomposing gore, sponging a wall back to non-blood-spattered inoffensiveness, allow him to feel he is making amends.

There is, of course, a catch. The Malibu suicide whose bedroom Web tidies on his first day of work has a daughter, good-looking and compatibly acerbic. When he responds to her follow-up summons, he lands in the sight lines of a self-styled “independent producer” who doesn’t seem to realize that movie shooters do it with blanks. The action tumbles from the comfortably familiar confines of Hollywood’s tattoo parlors and drug-riddled alleys to the city’s wilder fringes: a Carson motel, the Long Beach docks. The fast-moving plot embraces a multiethnic cast of feral hicks and criminally minded businessmen and a smuggled cache of cocktail nuts. Food again. Maybe we are a city obsessed.

Soon Web’s brains and emotions are engaged as well as his cleanup skills, and he’s forced to wonder whether he’s trying to save someone who has betrayed him. Going ahead with the rescue anyway is a grand romantic gesture that comes easily to Web; what’s harder is the thought that his willfully zoned-out stance may have created some of the trouble. He’s pondering, in other words, the nature of responsibility. His boss, a man with a past, points Web in the right direction: “You could have stayed. You chose not to. Now you have to live with the consequences of leaving that room…. You want to know what price is paid in this world, you need to be there when the deal goes down.” As in all good pulp fiction, the speech has resonance beyond its particulars.

Web ends The Mystic Arts showing up for his life and his loved ones—he’s a grown-up at last—while we’ve had the adolescent satisfaction of watching a bookish smart-ass beat up his enemies and out-argue them, too. Yet Huston’s novel is more than escapist fun. Between chases and backchat, his characters struggle to make sense of colorfully imperfect parents and brattily imperfect children, suffer for their mistakes and other people’s also, get wounded, cheat death. Sure, L.A.’s a lurid town that wears its heart on its marquee. The trick to living here, Huston and Spiller might agree, is to take it whole—sweet pulp, bitter rind—with a chaser of humor and several grains of salt.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Los Angeles magazine.