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To Have and Have Not in L.A.

Stephen Randall explores the two 'psychographic' areas of L.A. in 'The Other Side of Mulholland.'

July 18, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles has always struggled with esteem issues: "Lack of history." "Lack of literature" "Lack of distinctive skyline." Just substitute "L.A." for "dumb blond" in the joke cycle and you get the classic outsider take on left coast life--highly alluring yet ultimately vacuous.

Set in the Los Angeles of this very moment--right down to Friday's date night at LACMA and KNBC anchorman Paul Moyer's nightly flubs--Stephen Randall's new novel, "The Other Side of Mulholland" won't do too much to remedy those perceptions about our soft life in the sun. But image rehabilitation wasn't quite what he had in mind--you could think of it as an add-on.

Randall's writing is as sharp and bright as the region's fabled Mediterranean sun. And those familiar with that quality of light know it can show off the region with all of its blemishes and glory.

In a fast-paced and funny episodic novel (his first), Randall has presented a Los Angeles full of bizarre, oftentimes inexplicable, hierarchies and dualities--gym culture's elite "pump rooms" versus nondescript "training floors," BMWs versus Hondas and, of course, the city proper versus that indistinct region on "the other side of the hill," that other side of Mulholland.

The distances in Los Angeles, as one of his characters observes early on, are not "geographic but psychographic."

The conceit of an "upper" and "lower" Los Angeles is the prism through which Randall's book is filtered. We see the city's "haves" and "not sure what they haves" through the wildly disparate lives of twin brothers, Tim and Perry, one gay and one straight. One is a shabby dresser and general underachiever, the other GQ slick and on the A-list fast track--until circumstances shift from their usual trajectories.

"Think of L.A. as an iceberg," says Tim's new boss, Simon James, once a beloved No. 2 editor at a series of New York magazines, who now a runs Web start-up in Culver City. "There's that tip that everyone can see. That's Hollywood and all the glitz and the big houses and beautiful women and the BMWs. Upper Los Angeles. The mythologized Los Angeles ... ," he explains.

The lower part "is too dull to be the subject of a TV show or Joan Didion novel. It's normal life. It's the people who came out here to be Cameron Diaz or Brad Pitt and ended up working for Allstate instead. At first, they are disappointed, but you adjust to almost any reality."

Well versed in all these layers and intricacies, Randall, a third-generation Angeleno, knows all the cliches and perceptions that attach to being a native son. And maybe that's why he revels in flouting and tweaking them.

He's Not Your Typical Angeleno

He is exactly the kind of Angeleno to whom outsiders would readily extend the backhanded compliment: "You don't seem like you're from Los Angeles." But unlike many transplants, this Angeleno doesn't dismissively refer to Los Angeles by its initials. He doesn't aspire to write screenplays or teleplays.

He is an executive editor of a national magazine (one that, he allows, might in some circles, nudge him into Upper Los Angeles geography: Playboy), but it's merely publishing, not film production, in this place where film and television are king. He doesn't blare brand-name baubles, just a pair of bookish specs. Actually, the flashiest things on him are his smile and his thick, silver-threaded hair.

He shows up for this Upper L.A. "chat and chew" in Westwood (an activity that occurs frequently throughout "The Other Side of Mulholland") in a pair of jeans and a crisp, black button-down shirt. He's dressed not to impress, but for practicality. "I know how these things go," he says with a grin, "I just didn't want to spill anything on myself." As the editor responsible for the stories that people "really buy the magazine for"--including the Playboy Interview--he's comfortable on both sides of the table.

Los Angeles, the land of "full-team-coverage" and carwashes that offer self-help books along with bumper-to-bumper detailing, is both freeing and absurd.

And because of its penchant for extremes and rule-breaking, the region has always been on the receiving end of the easy jab, the recycled joke--a land of misfit toys.

But though these L.A.s do exist, "no one will give us credit for having normal lives," says Randall. "The idea that your life and my life is not unlike our life if we lived in Ohio or Connecticut or anywhere else .... We have take-out from Koo Koo Roo on Sundays."

The perception problem, he says, often has a lot to do with just who is doing the chronicling. "Not only do the people who tend to write about us [tend to] be the people who have been here for 15 minutes. They are writing about the other people who have been here for 15 minutes. And during that first 15 minutes, people tend to go crazy," he explains.

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