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Is that all there is?

This Book Will Save Your Life A Novel A.M. Homes Viking: 374 pp., $24.95

April 23, 2006|Samantha Dunn | Samantha Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation," "Failing Paris" and "Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life."

THIS book won't save you. To do that, it would have to be a work of passion and inspiration. Its words would have to alter your perception of what life can mean and induce a kind of "reading hangover" -- the sense of otherworldliness you can feel for hours, sometimes days, after finishing a fantastic book. You'd tell everyone to read it and give copies as gifts.

"This Book Will Save Your Life" is not that.

A.M. Homes, the critically lauded author of the short-story collections "The Safety of Objects" and "Things You Should Know" and the novel "Music for Torching," can be called an absurdist, a satirist in clunky boots.

Her new novel is at best a wan form of entertainment punctuated by fleeting moments of poignancy. Granted, there are excellent examples of comic dialogue (she's a master of the pithy exchange) and observations about upper-middle-class New Yorkers now in Los Angeles, all of which can be described with adjectives ending in "ic" -- as in sarcastic, sardonic, laconic.

She provokes knowing chuckles about Southern California's disaster-prone landscape, traffic and the plethora of treatments for a perfect body and spotless soul available to those who can afford them. In fact, the novel reads as a sort of inside joke for former New Yorkers who used to live between West 66th and 86th streets and L.A. Westsiders who rarely travel east of the 405 freeway -- except to go to Century City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood or downtown.

It has been said that literature is the history of exceptions, that stories always begin on the day something is different. This story does indeed start exactly there: Middle-aged Richard Novak has made a fortune moving numbers around, not actually producing any tangible product or service. Divorced, estranged from his son, Novak has connections only with the people he pays to be in his life -- a housekeeper, a nutritionist, a personal trainer. On the day this story begins, he looks out the window of his immaculate, manicured home in a canyon, where a sinkhole has begun to form.

Homes must be worried that readers, like the protagonist, are so numbed to existence that we're unable to interpret subtleties or metaphor, so she explains what everything signifies: Novak is a "prisoner of his own making"; the canyon homes stacked atop each other are a "social chain, an economic chain, a food chain.... Each person looks down on the next, thinking they somehow have it better, but there is always someone else either pressing up from below or looking down from above. There is no way to win."

Novak feels an intense pain that seems to emanate from nowhere. It has no source, no cause, yet it overwhelms him. Could this suffering be the sign of an existential crisis? Could this agony be the manifestation of life choices that have led him to such an isolated, essentially meaningless life? Gee ... ya think?

This inexplicable pain forces Novak to engage the world around him, first through a surreal maze of emergency-care workers, hospitals and an Andrew Weil-like doctor named Lusardi (who suggests that Novak can be cured with Viagra and a meditation retreat).

A cast of strangers then weaves through his life -- an East Indian doughnut shop owner, a movie star who helps Novak rescue a horse from the sinkhole that has swallowed his backyard, a housewife having a nervous breakdown in a supermarket produce section and a Malibu dumpster diver who is a cult writer of the J.D. Salinger variety. Engaging with these and other characters, Novak opens a Pandora's box of complications, which is what passes for plot in this novel. A drive becomes a high-speed chase to save a girl he realizes has been kidnapped in the trunk of the car in front of him; a visit to relatives in Massachusetts underscores how little he knows of his family; a stray dog with muddy paws marches into the all-white decor of the beach house he's renting while his home is being saved from the sinkhole; the son Novak hasn't had contact with in years arrives unexpectedly.

Novak ponders the tale of a man floating down a flooded street atop his front door whose only urge is to open that door. Novak wonders, "Was there some larger meaning -- was it a parable, an allegory, or just a story?" That's pretty much what this reader wants to know.

There is a moral here, of course: Extending yourself produces a fulfilling life, but it can be messy and without guarantees. Homes illuminates this central truth most satisfactorily in Novak's relationship with his son; a drunken encounter between them serves as the book's emotional climax. But irony and farce keep the reader at arm's length, uninvested in the characters or their angst.

Homes also trades on a Los Angeles of comic-book proportions: A pack of feral Chihuahuas terrorizes the rich on Rodeo Drive; a saber-tooth tiger may be roaming the hills. A movie star is something of a savant yet oddly callow; a famous writer is a boozer who doses himself with intravenous megavitamins. (In a twist, the savvy, down-to-earth housekeeper is not Latina but black.)

It's as if by shrink-wrapping the story in a blase tone and surreal circumstance, Homes is apologizing for the redemptive quality of her message, as if hope were an idea not quite urbane enough for modern literature. Yet such a story, absent what purports to be sophistication, would give readers the kind of art that does save lives.

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