Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Friday, October 06, 2006

She... Had To Leave... LOS ANGELES

Paint It Black by Janet Fitch

Unlike Fitch's last novel, White Oleander, it is unlikely that Paint It Black will be finding its way into Oprah's heart and onto the big screen. For one thing, it wouldn't make a very good movie. For another, it's the bleakest thing I've read all year, which is not to say that it's not also very good.

The book is set in the early 80s, right around the time that the L.A. punk scene was devolving into a skinhead jamboree. Josie Tyrell is a punk rock club rat who ekes out a living by modeling for artists and appearing in the occasional student film. She and her artist boyfriend, Michael, live in an idyllic little cottage in Echo Park, growing mint in the backyard and painting Parisian scenes on their bedroom walls. Very le vie Boheme. Except it's not.

Michael disappears at the beginning of the first chapter, and blows his brains out in a Twentynine Palms hotel room. Everything good we see about him comes from Josie's memories, as she cruises around Los Angeles in a vodka haze of grief to a soundtrack of the Germs, X, and Brahams.

Of course, Josie blames herself for not being able to save Michael. And on top of dealing with the overwhelming guilt, Josie has to contend with Michael's overbearing and unstable mother, Meredith, who blames her as well. A wealthy and accomplished concert pianist, Meredith is both diabolical and irresistible. One moment she's throttling Josie at her son's grave, the next, she's inviting her over for Christmas. Much as she hates Josie, the girl represents all of Michael that she has left and she's determined to pry out every detail.

At the same time, Josie needs Meredith's information, too. Meredith knew another side of Michael... the side who had private tutors, summered in San Tropez, and attended Harvard. As Josie learns more about her lover, and as more time passes, the flashbacks to their happy life become less happy. Fitch gradually teases out the events behind Michael's depression and suicide, but is subtle enough not to spell it all out.

If you liked...: Charles Baxter's crazy in love punk kids, Chloe and Oscar in The Feast of Love, Josie and Michael are the poison pill to their blissed-out, but similarly tragic story.

Also, if you enjoy books with a strong sense of place, you'll love traveling through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with Fitch. From flophouses on Franklin, to the ominous swank of the coyote-infested Hollywood Hills, the woman knows her backstreets like Phillip Marlowe.

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