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Cover Review

Bad Moon Rising

The Dead Circus

A Novel, By John Kaye, Atlantic Monthly Press: 320 pp., $24 WAITING PERIOD: A Novel, By Hubert Selby Jr., Marion Boyars: 198 pp., $22.95 MY LOOSE THREAD: A Novel, By Dennis Cooper, Canongate: 128 pp., $18

July 07, 2002|DAVID EBERSHOFF | David Ebershoff is the author of "The Rose City," "The Danish Girl" and "Pasadena," just out this month.

The loner who descends into the city's underbelly cuts a familiar figure in novels about Los Angeles: The brooder both detached from and ensnarled by a city on the verge of eruption. Depending on the character's state of mind and the amount of guilt and grief he is bearing, he either witnesses evil but escapes its entrapment or he explodes in violence.

Think of Tod Hackett, "a very complicated young man" in Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," published in 1939, the same remarkable year that Raymond Chandler's wise but rootless crime solver, Philip Marlowe, first appeared. Years later, in "Play It as It Lays," Joan Didion chillingly presented a female version of the loner on the edge ("Some people ask what makes Iago evil. I never ask."), a character burdened by migraines and the Santa Anas and the turbulent 1960s. More recently, Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde," one of the finest novels ever written about Los Angeles, chronicles the long, short life of Marilyn Monroe.

Now three novels by Los Angeles writers have just been published, and if they share anything, it is a protagonist suffering from isolation and despondency. The fullest of these, at least in terms of plot twists and evocation of the city, is John Kaye's second novel, "The Dead Circus."

The book is about a mildly crooked ex-cop named Gene Burk, whose fiancee recently died in a plane crash. Burk nurses his grief by returning to a nearly 20-year-old obsession: the mysterious death of rock'n'roller Bobby Fuller in 1966. As music fans and connoisseurs of L.A. crime know, the Bobby Fuller Four had one Top 10 hit ("I Fought the Law") and Fuller was about to make it big when he was found dead in his car with gasoline in his lungs at the age of 23. Both in reality and in Kaye's novel, the police declared Fuller's death a suicide, an unsatisfying conclusion that for years has led to rumors of murder by the mob.

Burk's investigation into Fuller's death takes an unexpected turn when he discovers, among his fiancee's things, eight mysterious letters from a woman named Alice McMillan, who, we eventually find out, is one of Charles Manson's girls, on the run from the law since the notorious summer of 1969. Alice knew Burk's fiancee when they were both teenagers, and now Burk has two mysteries on his hands: Who killed Fuller and did his fiancee have a connection to Manson?

That's enough plot for any crime novel. What ensues are two story lines that crisscross through the underside of Hollywood and the music scene, shifting between California in the doped-up late 1960s and the hung-over mid-1980s. The novel begins a little loosely with too many threads (more on that later), but halfway through, Kaye has established that one element that every mystery--no, make that every novel--requires: The reader is compelled to turn the page to find out what happens next. The book's weakest moments are in its opening pages, because Kaye's narrative style at first lurches sideways rather than seizing the momentum skillfully established in a prior scene. There are flashbacks within flashbacks and important clues revealed through minor characters who have no real reason to open up to Burk.

Burk is a music junkie, and Kaye often relies on musical arcana to set his scenes and tone. In describing a bar, for example, he tells us, "On the juke box, Howlin' Wolf was singing 'Moanin' at Midnight,' a top ten rhythm and blues hit from 1951." Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Similarly, Kaye routinely introduces characters by surface description: "She was in her late thirties, decent-looking but certainly not pretty, dressed in a Levi's jacket and corduroy pants with a light blue crew-neck sweater underneath the jacket." Again, sometimes this succinctly sums up a character (as when Kaye describes Burk as "sitting on the edge of his couch, making phone calls and chain-smoking Marlboros") and sometimes it falls short because the details, although ably written, don't really add up to much.

Throughout the novel, celebrities appear, boldface names taking the place of imaginative detail: Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Steve Martin and Jack Nicholson are among those who make cameos in the way they might in a gossip column. Even so, Burk is a strong, likable character: the lonely guy peering into the city's pool of scum and seeing his own blurry reflection. Once the novel's momentum takes hold, his pursuit becomes ours.

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