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A story right out of Hollywood

After years in the biz, Seth Greenland wrote his first novel -- a satiric look at TV. Soon it'll be a movie. He appreciates the irony.

March 14, 2005|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

On a recent morning, Seth Greenland sits in his Santa Monica office wearing black jeans and a gray pullover, trying to keep his sense of balance intact. Outwardly calm, soft-spoken even, the 49-year-old is, by his own admission, that rarest of human specimens: a writer on the verge of getting what he wants.

For more than two decades, Greenland has toiled in the trenches of the entertainment industry, doing everything from writing gags for stand-ups to working on sitcoms such as "a.k.a. Pablo," "Arli$$" and "Silver Spoons." Although he can be reticent about his history -- "All my art crimes are available on the Internet," he grumbles, by way of deflection -- a look around his office yields some clues.

On one wall, there's a poster for the hip-hop comedy "Who's the Man?," for which Greenland wrote the screenplay. "I have that up," he says, "to keep myself humble."

On another, almost hidden above a large file cabinet, are the awards he's won for his plays "Jerusalem" and "Jungle Rot," the latter a black comedy about an attempted CIA assassination of militant American Muslim Patrice Lumumba Ford.

If this all seems somehow incompatible, that, Greenland suggests, is the point precisely, the tension at the heart of his work. Now, he's gearing up to frame a middle ground of some sort with his first novel, "The Bones," a scathing comedic take on the lures and degradations of the Hollywood fast track.

"The Bones" is very much a novel about balance, albeit of a peculiar sort. The story of two men -- a sitcom writer named Lloyd Melnick and his onetime hero, Frank Bones, a black-clad, foul-mouthed stand-up with a nearly legendary ability to walk the line between comedy and chaos -- it asks us to consider both the price we pay for success and the cost of staying true to ourselves.

For Lloyd, with a $12-million development deal and a status-obsessed wife who is overseeing construction of a Mediterranean villa in Brentwood, prosperity is a reminder of the integrity he's lost. For Frank, nearing 50, still playing clubs through a haze of booze and dope smoke, the issue is more elemental: He is desperate.

For both, Hollywood is a place where possibility leads to compromise, a three-dimensional minefield that could detonate at any time. That's a situation with which Greenland is familiar; it's one reason he wrote the book. The irony is that this has, somewhat serendipitously, turned out to be a brilliant career move.

Dark and darker

Already, he is adapting "The Bones" for Sony Pictures, with David Mamet slated to direct.

"It's a funny story," Greenland says. "I was sending the book out for blurbs. I don't know a lot of famous writers, but there are a handful of people I really admire, one of whom is David Mamet. So I wrote him a letter, and my publisher sent it with a galley. Then one day, I'm sitting in my office, and my son comes in with the phone. It's Mamet. He says, 'I loved your book. What are you doing with the movie rights?' The book hadn't gone out, so I say, 'Nothing yet.' So Mamet says, 'I'm sitting here with [producer] John Calley, and he liked it as much as I did.' He gives the phone to Calley, and Calley says, 'Can you come in tomorrow? We want to acquire your book.' "

Greenland laughs as he recounts the story; it is, he realizes, something a writer like himself would never invent. The very idea, in fact, is antithetical to his novel, which opens bleakly, then quickly spirals off the edge. This is among the book's most compelling aspects, that just when you think events have hit their darkest, Greenland makes them darker still.

To some extent, that has to do with Frank, who is a walking well of caustic self-expression. Frank is not just angry, he's bitter, self-destructive, riding a wave of outrage at the world. He's also very funny, which is his curse and his redemption, since, as Greenland points out, "If you can be funny, people will allow you to be vitriolic in a way they will not tolerate if you're not. Comedy excuses everything."

At the same time, comedy offers a source of identification, especially for Lloyd, who sees in Frank the intensity, the outlaw edge, he thinks he's given up. The truth is that Lloyd's intensity is wholly vicarious -- until he tries Frank's lifestyle for himself.

"Lloyd," Greenland explains, "is the id for so many of us. Most people get married and have families, responsibilities. The impulse to act out may not go away, but the chance to do it becomes infinitesimal. So to write a guy like Lloyd, who thinks he wants to act out, and then in acting out completely [ruins] himself, I thought was a very honest and real thing." He pauses. "It's Icarus, really. You get close, and then, if you're unlucky, you're burned up by the sun. If not, you wind up back in L.A., writing sitcoms."

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