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The Wise Guy : No one escapes the sting of writer T. Coraghessan Boyle's satire. This time, rich Angelenos--a breed he's quite familiar with--are the ones feeling it.

August 20, 1995|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's tough living in Los Angeles.

But, then, hardship is relative--as T. Coraghessan Boyle's sixth novel, "The Tortilla Curtain" (Viking), makes pointedly clear.

Take the sad story of Kyra Mossbacher, a hotshot realtor who lives in an upscale Topanga Canyon tract recently carved into the chaparral.

A native Angeleno, Kyra has endured earthquake, flood and fire. But when Nature goes after her beloved dog Osbert, it's more than she can bear.

The sight of a coyote bounding off with her little Dandie Dinmont terrier is "one of the worst experiences of her life, maybe the worst."

Judging from the howls of public outrage that follow such attacks, plenty of Southern Californians would empathize with Mossbacher's pain.

Boyle, however, puts the canine-eat-canine world of suburban L.A. into perspective.

Even as Mossbacher gulps down sedatives to cope with her loss, you see, Candido Rincon and his pregnant wife, America, are scratching out an existence in a nearby canyon, sleeping in the dirt and scavenging food like feral dogs.

There is some irony, these days, in Boyle rubbing salt in the gash that separates California's haves and have-nots.

That irony is not lost on him.

"I'm an equal opportunity satirist," he says as he sits on a porch at his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Montecito--a 'hood chock-full of mansions owned by the likes of Michael and Arianna Huffington.

"I make fun of everybody, including and especially myself."

In the New Yorker magazine's summer reading issue, Boyle does just that, describing a decidedly Boylesque character like this:

"A skinny man in his late 40s with kinky hair and a goatee who dressed like he was 25 and had a dead-black morbid outlook on life and twisted everything into the kind of joke that made you squirm."

Indeed, with that matted tumbleweed hair and chin mop--not to mention the earrings--Boyle might be seen as a parody of the archetypal Angeleno artiste.

There's little doubt, though, that Boyle takes even his self-satire seriously. In the New Yorker, for instance, he goes on to tweak his "genius" character's legendary ego--an exercise in egomania itself.

That can hardly be blamed on Boyle alone. In the last decade the media and critics have fed that ego like naughty children hurling fruit to a zoo gorilla.

While he does have detractors, admirers have actually called his prose "a symphony of words." One reviewer even compared his wordsmithery to someone "juggling a thousand gems with kaleidoscopic control."

More than a few old news clips about him use the word brilliant. And almost everyone extends that rarest of literary compliments to Boyle, saying that he is certifiably funny.

Which is why the prolific author is now a bit nervous, in a Woody Allen kind of way.

"I'm a little sensitive about this book," he says. "I'm a wise guy, I'm very ironic, I make fun of things and I tell jokes--and this time I didn't."

Or, at least, not as relentlessly.

"There is that element of satire," he concedes. "I really can't help myself--that's the way I see things.

"But I tried to reel that in, so it really isn't a comic satire so much as the kind that makes you shake your head. The intent of the book is to sweep you up and move you and involve you emotionally."

*

The butt of the jokes this time is a breed of affluent Angeleno whom Boyle came to know in the years he lived in Woodland Hills.

Kyra Mossbacher lives with husband Delaney, their Nintendo-addled 6-year-old son, a Siamese cat named Dame Edith, and--at least initially--their two little terriers. Their home in the sprawling Arroyo Blanco development is Spanish Mission-style (floor plan #A227C, Rancho White with Navajo trim).

Each drives a Lexus, Delaney's accessorized with a vanity plate reading PILGRIM, after the "Pilgrim at Topanga Creek" nature column he writes for an environmental journal.

Indeed, the Mossbachers are, in their way, a perfect family, bound by the sort of shared beliefs and ideals that give meaning to many Southern Californians:

"They were both perfectionists, for one thing. They abhorred clutter. They were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full-blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships included the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation and the Democratic Party. They preferred the contemporary look to Early American or kitsch. In religious matters, they were agnostic."

This harmony of values begins to fray, however, as the couple confronts its true place in Nature's grand scheme.

It may or may not be relevant to the novel at hand that before the conversation on his porch turns to literature, Boyle nudges it onto the unusual tangent of botanical Darwinism.

"There's a war here between two types of trees," he says, gesturing at the surrounding greenery with a hand that sports a silver skull ring.

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