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Hollywood Noir

LOVE IS A RACKET;\o7 By John Ridley\f7 ;\o7 (Alfred A. Knopf: 298 pp., $24)\f7

November 29, 1998|PETER LEFCOURT | Peter Lefcourt is the author of "The Woody," published by Simon and Schuster

"Love Is a Racket," John Ridley's second novel, begins with the sound of the hero's fingers being broken--kraop, in case you wondered what breaking fingers sound like--and ends with him looking into the business end of a gun. In between, a lot of people get killed, blood gets splattered around in some very abstract ways, bodies get pulverized and the hero decides that what he really wants to do is write.

Ridley's milieu is the Ninth Circle of Hollywood's underworld, populated by a colorful assortment of drunks, hookers and hustlers. His prose, at its best, is in a league with hard-boiled stylists like Elmore Leonard or Dashiell Hammett--"She was cheap . . . the same type of low-rent glossy hag who built this town . . . a woman who passed for OK in the dark, but I'm guessing in daylight was black-velvet-art ugly." At its worst, it can be clunky: "[O]nly cops drive cars so dull and ordinary they stand out like Woody Allen at a Farrakhan rally."

The story is told in the first person by Jeffty Kittridge, a black 37-year-old ex-screenwriter who has suffered the indignity of having his one great script rewritten by Hollywood hacks. So upset was he by this experience that he prefers to live the life of a small-time con man than to have his artistic integrity screwed with. Better to be a bottom feeder in a scummy pond, running bait-and-switch scams in 7-Elevens, Jeffty thinks, than to be a hack in a BMW.

The plot: Jeffty, into a sadistic Haitian loan shark named Dumas for some serious change, winds up caught between Dumas and some of the most vicious cops this side of Raymond Chandler, who are trying to get Jeffty to roll over on the loan shark. His first shot at getting the monkey off his back arrives in the form of an old friend, Nellis, whose wife Jeffty appropriated some years ago in murky circumstances. Nellis is a flaky drug addict with an idiot savant's skill at poker, and Jeffty takes him to Vegas for a run at the tables. Things end badly. Especially for Nellis.

But all this is merely overture for the arrival of "the girl." You can't have noir fiction without a "girl," preferably the type of hard, haunting woman that is catnip to tough guys. Her name is Mona, a street-urchin-hooker-Pier Angeli-look-alike with a body that won't quit and a heart of gold (well, maybe gold leaf). Jeffty recruits her for an imaginative if farfetched scheme to con an old Hollywood mogul who has been pining nearly 30 years for the dead actress Angeli. The idea is to get the lovesick mogul to fall in love with Mona--whom Jeffty re-dresses and re-coifs Pygmalion-style to resemble the Italian siren--and then have her hit him up for the money Jeffty needs to get Dumas off his back.

It is in the interstices of this story that Ridley is at his best. When he is describing the clientele of a sleazy bar or when he takes the reader on an excursion to Hollywood Park out of season or when Jeffty has to dispose of an inconvenient dead body, the writing is vivid and funny. Ridley has a sharp eye for detail and an ear for offbeat speech. There is a terrific vignette of Jeffty's assignation with a Vegas change-girl that could stand alone as a short story.

But when Ridley drifts into whining interior monologue, gratuitous social commentary bleeds into the prose, transforming it from sharp and funny to mawkish and polemic. Ridley-Jeffty's animus toward the Hollywood movie-making establishment is palpable. "Guys like him built this town and 'the Industry' just so people like them--the crowd--could drive their German cars home to their big houses to be with their dysfunctional kids who drank during the day when they should've been going to their prep schools." We're not surprised to learn, in the flap copy, that Ridley has worked as a TV writer and that his first novel, "Stray Dogs," was made into a film by Oliver Stone. In his own words, he "has done slave labor as a screenwriter in Hollywood." The hyperbole says it all.

The book's hero doesn't much care for women, gays, Asians, Latinos or, for that matter, white people. This type of dissociation between the author's views and his/her characters' is a prerogative of fiction writers. A writer is not responsible for his protagonist's morals or politics. Philip Marlowe was not politically correct. But Chandler preferred presenting his views between the lines rather than flat out of the mouth of his alienated hero.

If you're not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino School of Expressionistic Violence, you might want to skip this book, or at least not read it while you're eating. "A hole magically appeared in the middle of his forehead bubbling a stream of blood. Simultaneously, the back of his head opened like a trapdoor, allowing his brains to spill down onto Moe's marble foyer."

A talent like Ridley's would benefit from tighter editing--if only copy editing (he has the Beverly Hills Hotel located at Sunset and Beverly Glen). If someone had convinced him to let his story do the talking for him, this would be a better book. He's too good a writer to keep getting in his own way.

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