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Almost too awful to be true

The Los Angeles Diaries A Memoir James Brown William Morrow: 202 pp., $21.95

October 19, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

James BROWN is a novelist, and the casual reader might assume that his latest book is a hardboiled mystery rather than a memoir. The incidents depicted in "The Los Angeles Diaries" include arson and murder, alcoholism and drug abuse, rape and prostitution, adultery and divorce, and what links them is a tale of betrayal so profound that it seems almost mythic. But, as Brown allows us to understand, the tale that he tells is perfectly true.

"I am forty-three years old as I write this, and when I look back, when I remember that smile and how his stare lingered, I see the face of a plain, average-looking young man," writes Brown in one shocking scene that depicts his seduction by a neighbor at the age of 12. "[H]is hands, as I remember them, and I remember them well, are as soft as those of any woman who's ever touched me."

Brown describes his childhood in San Jose and later in Los Angeles in the 1960s as a crucible of neglect and abuse. But the worst memories go far beyond what commonly happens to children who grow up in a broken home. Indeed, "The Los Angeles Diaries" is strongly reminiscent of James Ellroy's "My Dark Places," and Brown, like Ellroy, struggles to make sense of a mother who was both seductive and deeply hurtful, a mother who can be neither understood nor forgotten. But there is one striking difference: Ellroy's mother was murdered, whereas Brown's mother was accused of murder. "I'm waiting in the car for my mother while she set sets fire to an apartment building down the street," he recalls of the act of arson that results in the death of an old woman from smoke inhalation. "I'm five years old."

Brown sees the possibility of redeeming his blighted childhood through the stories and novels he is inspired to write. His books ("Lucky Town," "Final Performance," "Hot Wire") are hardly bestsellers. But, like his brother and sister, Brown is seduced by dreams of success in Hollywood; they aspire to be actors, and he wants to see his novels turned into movies. And like them, he treats the pain of failure with drugs and booze.

A telling moment comes when he heads down from his hideaway in the San Bernardino mountains for a pitch session at one of the studios. He has already endured enough of these ordeals to know that the 23-year-old baby mogul is going to be a hard sell. "I don't know why you ever bothered to write this," says a studio executive about a screenplay Brown has based on his latest novel. "It's no movie. It's too real." The pitch goes badly. He ends up drunk in a bar on Hollywood Boulevard, scores some dope at an apartment complex near Cahuenga and Vine and finds himself back home without quite knowing how he got there. And he confesses that it's an old, old habit. "I've been drinking and using since I was nine years old and sometimes I think it's the only thing that gives me any real pleasure," he writes. "I need it, sometimes, just to make it through another day."

Brown is capable of bringing a certain dark humor to a book full of horror. In the creative writing course he teaches, he is supposed to mark up his students' short stories with his comments, and instead he considers "turning them back with a match taped to the last page." His antic encounter with a Vietnamese potbellied pig called Daisy turns into a comic metaphor for a failed marriage. And when a pitch session at Universal is canceled because a sniper -- a disgruntled employee -- is firing at the building, Brown cannot quite understand why the studio executive is too distracted by the gunfire to listen to the pitch: "The question that most concerns me is whether or not he's had a chance to look over my ideas, and I'm afraid to ask for fear of sounding too anxious, as if it's a matter of life and death."

Several of the 12 chapters in Brown's book were first published in literary journals and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Each shows the toolmarks of the well-crafted short story, carefully and even lovingly shaped and polished until it shines, and they are only loosely linked by a narrative thread. Taken as a whole, however, the stories amount to a memoir of stunning intimacy and unforgettable impact. At moments, Brown is capable of bringing a lump to the reader's throat, as when he muses over a sojourn with his father after his parents have broken up; his father is too poor to afford a second bed, so they share a bunk in his shabby San Jose apartment. "Looking back, I see myself at fourteen in bed beside him," recalls Brown. "The kid who shoots heroin, robs and steals is getting drowsy, his father's voice slowly fading, and when I fall asleep and wake up thirty years later as a middle-aged man, I realize that this brief time I spent with my father has much to do with why I am still here and my brother and sister are not."

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