YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The 'Silent' Minority : Ferrigno's Latest O.C.-Set Novel Taps a '90s Subculture--'Phone Prank Society'


It is the quirky subcultures and out-there personalities of Southern California that have long ignited Robert Ferrigno's writing. Steroid-pumped bodybuilders. Ferrari owners. Auto repo men. Surf bums. Women who compete in bar bikini contests. Paramilitary weekend warriors.

"I was always interested in subcultures--high or low, it didn't matter," says Ferrigno, 49, who in the 1980s was an Orange County newspaper feature writer.

As a novelist in the 1990s, Ferrigno continues to mine the denizens of the Southern California landscape, taking reality and, as he says, "amping" it up. Think of Boyd and Lloyd, the twin air-brained bodybuilders who work out to the strains of Wagner in "The Horse Latitudes," his 1990 debut novel. Or the hit man in "Dead Man's Dance" who hopes to earn enough money to open a beauty salon.

In "Dead Silent" (Putnam; $24.95), Ferrigno's fourth noir crime thriller set primarily in the deceptively sunny environs of Orange County, he taps into the little-known world of people who make and circulate audiotapes of crank phone calls, off-camera remarks from talk shows picked up off satellite feeds and candid Hollywood outtakes.

For them, it's all for laughs.

But in "Dead Silent" a taped phone call has tragic consequences.


The novel opens with record producer Nick Carbonne and his entertainment attorney wife, Sharon, lying in bed in their south Orange County home listening to the rhythmic rocking of the bed in the guest bedroom below. That would be their house guests, Nick's former rock bandmate Perry and Perry's sexy girlfriend, Alison, an aspiring actress.

Nick and Sharon can't help listening to the seductive activity on the floor below, two unseeing voyeurs in the night.

But then they hear what sounds like Alison talking on the telephone. She's speaking in a high-pitched, girlish voice. Curious, Sharon carefully picks up their bedside phone, laying it on the pillow between her and Nick. On the downstairs phone, Alison is talking to a man--a stranger--about her being a high school cheerleader, about her boyfriend on the football team, about sex. . . .

By the end of the next day, the chemistry between Nick and the seductive Alison has begun to ignite--and they have survived an accident in which Nick's Porsche overturns on a flooded road as they drive home from a record-release party in Los Angeles. Returning to his house, Nick and Alison encounter a shocking scene: Perry has been shot to death, his naked body floating in the backyard hot tub; the nude body of Nick's wife, who was apparently mistaken for Alison, is nearby.

Perry and Alison, it turns out, had been making and selling dirty phone calls that Alison placed to strangers. The night before, they had inadvertently taped the murder of one of their regular clients.

It's easy to see why the novel's opening three chapters--only 40 manuscript pages--were enough to pique the interest of Hollywood long before Ferrigno finished writing the book. Last summer, Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, paid Ferrigno a high six-figure advance for an option on the movie rights to "Dead Silent."

"Dead Silent" the novel hits bookstores this week.

In a review in the September issue of Playboy, critic Digby Diehl says Ferrigno's fourth outing demonstrates "that he is still a fine stylist who writes about sex and violence as well as anybody." Reviewers of his previous novels have noted Ferrigno's flair for writing about sex and violence. But don't get the wrong idea.

"I read other thrillers where the violence seems to me infinitely more explicit," Ferrigno says. As for the sex in his novels: "I always think that I write romantic thrillers because there is a love story at the center of the book."

And, always, there's Ferrigno's take on different segments of Southern California's subcultures.

This time out, he not only serves up what he calls the "postmodern phone prank society," but a drug-dealing motorcycle gang and "the Hollywood hustle, which is what Alison is involved in; and Nick, who is basically a washed-up rock star doing the best he can."

Speaking by phone from his home in Kirkland, Wash., where he, his wife, Jody, and their three children have lived since moving from Long Beach in 1991, Ferrigno says that, to him, Southern California is more a collection of subcultures than a single culture.

"In Seattle basically there is one dominant culture. But what I loved about Southern California is no matter what your belief structure was--whatever you enjoyed doing--you could find somebody to do it with: Whether you breed Doberman and collie mixes and dress them in Hawaiian shirts, you can find people to do just that--and rent a hall and have a performance every month."

The idea for writing a novel dealing with the underground audiotape circuit came to Ferrigno after attending a Hollywood party at the home of a friend. The friend, a television comedy writer, put on a tape he had received of a phone prank, saying, "I've got something you'll get a kick out of."

Los Angeles Times Articles