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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : An L.A. Weekend Is All That's Required : MEDIEVAL IN LA: A Fiction by Jim Paul; Counterpoint $21, 228 pages

May 10, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you were on an airplane, wearing white pants, on your way to L.A. for the weekend reading "The Passion of the Western Mind" by Richard Tarna and your tomato juice spilled all over the book and all over your white pants and you had nothing else but a pair of purple shorts and you had been standing on the edge of a spiritual precipice for some time, would you: (A) scream "I can't take it anymore" and burst into tears, (B) get angry and look around for someone to blame or (C) quietly change everything about your life from that moment on?

Answer A means you're a baby, answer B means you're a coward and answer C means you're Jim Paul.

Both Jim Paul and the narrator of this sweet novel are medievalists, poets and novel writers. Spilling the tomato juice is what Jim's friend Harry calls a "suckhole," "a stupid accident that ends up altering the future you had in mind. Usually suckholes are minor: You have to count your change before you can get on the bus, and the future changes while you are standing there counting. You go into a bank to get change, meet someone in line, and decide to have lunch."

Our narrator is ripe for a suckhole. It seems that he is struggling to free himself of his tendency to live life as a medieval man, always looking for meaning, always trying to connect threads, "living in the steady, adequately lighted reality . . . a purely human place, not the actual world."

He ponders Aquinas and Copernicus and Hume and William of Ockham, who insisted, heretically, that "all worldly things were completely individual"; the ponderer could arrive at truth "only through revelation, not through exercise of reason."

What better place to suspend reason for the weekend than L.A.? What better place to fall into a suckhole? L.A., for Jim, is a place people escape to, a giant theater for the willing suspension of disbelief, full of coincidence, devoid of meaning.

Medieval man and his girlfriend visit their friends Jess and Steve. They have brunch at the Revival cafe, they overhear conversations in which people say "I'm like, I'm sure." They eat dinner at Lafarfalla, then they go to a Hollywood party. Playing a little with time and history, Jim tells the life stories of several people at the party before he actually meets them. But still, even after hiding for a while in the funky narrative mode, telling stories about people who, coincidence by coincidence, were able to "make it in L.A.," he feels earthbound, revelation-less.

All weekend, Jim has been thinking about an old friend, Lloyd, a sculptor who lives in L.A. When he runs into Lloyd, amid a crowd of sunbathers and tourists on the Manhattan Beach pier, Jim feels finally open to coincidence, receptive to revelation, full of love.

"Life could be a constant amazement, if you could let it. I, anyway, hadn't. I could give in, could live, could get a life, as they say in L.A." Between the tomato juice and the running into Lloyd, Jim gets what he wants out of the weekend.

You're thinking, big deal, he ran into Lloyd, right? Or, some of you are thinking, I'd rather read an essay by St. John the Divine on the nature of revelation, right?

It may not seem like much, but the difficulty of integrating ideas with real life; of closing the chasm between your secret, thinking life and your ordinary, chatty, bill-paying, car-washing existence is no small matter.

A novel, the narrator gleefully admits, is the perfect place to work out the problem: How does the way I see the world affect the way I live? There's room for the details of daily life, there's dimension (if the writer is good) for overlapping reality and experiments with time and perception. It doesn't have to be 1,000 pages and humorless, as Jim Paul proves. It can just be a weekend in L.A.

I'm like, I'm sure.

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