Alice in La-La-Land by Robert Campbell (Poseidon Press: $16.95; 279 pages)
At first this Hollywood detective thriller seems like a parody of a parody of a parody, and of course in some ways it is: "La-La Land had grown old enough," Robert Campbell writes, "to have more than one cancerous wound eating at its bones. More than one boulevard along which whores, catamites, twangie boys, and transsexuals paraded. Skid Rows populated by the homeless. Tenderloins strewn with winos sucking on a bottle in a bag and young dopers on the nod."
Wow! This fellow isn't writing about the wholesome side of Hollywood. He's definitely disillusioned. Here, even canine excrement isn't genuine, exactly: It could just as easily have been "stored away in some warehouse full of urban props and trotted out to dress the sets of a hundred cheap flicks recorded on reels of stock ends by non-union camera crews and young directors trying to kick down the door to honor, power, fame, riches, and the love of women. For men."
Dizzyingly devilishly wonderful sentences, until you remember that a young director in search of honor, power, fame and riches wouldn't necessarily require the very best in petrified excrement, but who cares ?
"Alice in La-La-Land" is one long, sustained, crazy tirade about the rotted excesses of our fair city, and as far into the story as the next to the last page, Whistler, the Hollywood private detective who detests corruption (but chooses to live in it, naturally), finds time to remark, "La-La Land's a land of losers. . . . We're all just a bunch of dreamers with a nickel in our shoe. Why do we come out here chasing dreams that are so hard to catch? It takes your heart, your guts and your liver just to find the lock, and then 999 times out of a grand you can't find the key."
Whistler (just as much as his creator) loves to talk that way. He's got the mean streaks down pat. He makes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe look like fat members of the bourgeoisie--they moped and sulked in offices, and had desk drawers and filing cabinets in which to stash their scotch, but Whistler "lives out of his hat," sitting in a booth at Gentrys, a grimy coffee shop at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, and "the stroll around the four corners of Hollywood and Vine was prime jungle."
Whistler and his bachelor buddies deplore this situation long and often. They've done their best to dent the economics of the wholesale meat market transactions that go on just outside Gentrys, but haven't had great success. Bosco Silverlake, proprietor of Gentrys, lost his arm in a battle with a pimp over a teen-aged hooker, but the girl cried over the pimp instead of Bosco. Isaac Canaan, the vice cop who never sleeps, almost lost his mind when his niece was raped and murdered, but he didn't. Now the three men philosophize the days away, in this flesh factory.
A strange world, and a familiar one to readers of this genre, until a beautiful woman, incongruously dressed in furs during a Santa Ana condition, comes to hire Whistler as her bodyguard. She's getting a divorce from her husband, she says, and he's trying to kill her. Why should this be news? Because her husband is "Mr. Midnight," Roger Twelvetrees, emperor of the late-night television talk show, and whatever he does is news.
Roger Twelvetrees, what a creation! A hideous fictional concoction of Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis and Howie Mandell with a grotesque little fillip of Arthur Godfrey thrown in. Beating prostitutes to death is what Roger does on a good day. Mostly he's content with insulting the intelligence of the American viewer, telling terrible stories over and over again to his entourage and forcing them to laugh, insulting waitresses and doing his best to get them fired.
Every scene with Roger Twelvetrees in it makes a point that's really scary here: The American dream is a sick dream--a society that tolerates Hollywood and Vine is, of course, going to laugh at terrible, meaningless talk-show hosts echoing hollowly in the dead of night. There is a throughline, Campbell suggests, from the pitiful and cheated pre-teens on the Hollywood streets--Nathanael West's grandchildren--to the soggy, lifeless, drugged out, coarse and stupid "entertainers" at the very top of our industry.
What can the rest of us do about it? Nothing much, Campbell suggests, except to read the annotated "Alice in Wonderland," and try to help out when we can. Not that it will do any good. Under the parody; under the hip, slick, baroque prose style, under the gross-out sex scenes, Campbell has etched a dreadful, seductive picture of a city that makes--if you dare to face it straight--Hogarth's London look like Cincinnati on the afternoon of the Fourth of July.