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He's been piecing this one together for years

Tom Epperson, in print with an L.A. crime noir, shrugs off all the scrapes and diversions.

February 06, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Tom Epperson, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter and even more longtime aspiring novelist, is a gentle man who's just published a brutal book. Epperson, who has a shy Arkansas twang and a slight hangdog manner, was talking on a recent afternoon about his 1930s-esque noir, "The Kind One," at Musso & Frank's in Hollywood, a place he loves for its literary ghosts.

"I know the amnesia thing is standard in noir, it's a little familiar," Epperson, 56, said of the book's protagonist, who has no idea who he is. "But it's so much fun. There's a reason why it's used so often, because it's an investigation into the nature of your own identity. In a sense we're all doing that. I don't believe people who say they understand existence: I think it's a mystery we're all trying to figure out."

It's a comment you wouldn't expect from the author of "The Kind One," whose narrator, Danny, has a good heart but no evident inner life or philosophical yearning. He's interested in surviving from day to day, and that's not always easy.

Danny works for a sadistic gangster who's part Bugsy Siegel, part Mickey Cohen and part Lucky Luciano. This gang leader's actions -- including an opening scene that is horrible without being at all graphic -- were inspired by several contemporary Mexican gangsters.

The book, which has been endorsed by L.A. writers Robert Crais and Carolyn See, was recently praised in The Times. Eric Miles Williamson called the novel "a circus of cliches" -- but in a good way. "On every page, the language is crisp and fresh, the details sharp and keenly observed, the dialogue real, never forced."

Part of what makes the book, which at times reads perhaps too much like a screenplay, appealing is its period setting, which comes from the author's deeply rooted love of the '30s. The decade has special resonance for an L.A. crime novel: Though the book doesn't directly echo the early work of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain -- and the author avoided revisiting the former because he feared Philip Marlowe's voice would overwhelm his own -- noir casts its grim shadow. Epperson read Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land" and books about bootlegging and crime, and watched every period film he could get his hands on.

He was struck, in his research, by "the casual racism" of the day. He also found some little-known institutions, including a Pasadena-based eugenics group (supported by Times publisher Harry Chandler) called the Human Betterment Foundation, and an L.A. drinking club called Little Brother's, a rare spot where black and white, gay and straight, caroused together.

"I spent two years on the book, and the first seven months was just research," said Epperson, who co-wrote the screenplay for 1992's "One False Move" with longtime friend Billy Bob Thornton.

"I didn't want this to be some fantasy of the past. I wanted it to be grounded in historical reality. And 1930s L.A. was a great time: Everybody was corrupt: the cops, the judges, the press, the businessmen. . . . There was literally nowhere to turn; there was no real justice."

Boyhood heroes

As a small-town boy at the University of Arkansas, Epperson fell for Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and later fell into "a daze" over the rest of the Russian-born mandarin's work. He also responded -- on the other side of the spectrum of style -- to "the poetry of simplicity" in Ernest Hemingway.

After college, he studied English, also in Arkansas, and later bumped into a neighbor, a buck-toothed kid he'd long seen as a younger brother. "When I got back from grad school, Billy had grown up."

The old friends reconnected and realized they were united by their ambitions -- Thornton's dream to become an Elvis-like singer, Epperson's drive to make himself a famous Nabokov-like writer. They just needed to get out of Arkansas first.

So the two said goodbye to their girlfriends and mothers and moved to New York. (For Epperson, the trip was provoked in part by a similar move by John Boy in "The Waltons.")

"We were horrified," Epperson said of their arrival. "It was the summer of the Son of Sam. . . . It was like crawling down into the crater of a volcano. We were small-town guys: We'd never been anywhere."

They lasted all of 10 hours -- and then returned home.

Despite what seemed like a more appealing option -- Epperson had been accepted to the doctoral program at the University of Texas -- he turned it down because he thought it would be too seductive. "I love the libraries, the shady trees, the pretty coeds. I would've written novels about a professor living on a pretty campus."

Instead, Epperson worked as a teacher and freelance journalist back in Arkansas, reading Proust, Milton and Tolstoy and writing pages of stories he never published. But as he hit 30, his wanderlust -- and sense of "a great destiny" -- reasserted itself.

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