YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An outsider splurges his way through L.A.

February 16, 2009|Jonathan Shapiro

Chris Ayres' "Death by Leisure" is a memoir of financial foolishness.

It is also, sadly, an obituary for our late, great city of Los Angeles.

Felled by the burst of a real estate bubble, a victim of mass greed and self-delusion, it is mourned, alas, more by creditors than by those who witnessed its profligacy.

Ayres was born to write this book.

Growing up in dreary England, his American Dream was a lifestyle, exemplified by the film "Wall Street"; Ayres loved everything about the movie except the ending. "Disappointed? I almost put my foot through the TV screen," Ayres writes. "I was completely on Gordon Gekko's side."

Filled with hopeful avarice, Ayres moved to Hollywood as a correspondent for the Times of London.

Unlike better British writers before him (Ayres cites Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis as role models), he arrived in our fair city in pursuit of fast cars, faster women and immediate fame.

From such high expectations and low character, little good is born. A generous expense account allowed Ayres to pursue caviar facials and Champagne dreams, not to mention other desperate efforts at impressing women.

Easy credit and fanciful financial instruments allowed him to obtain a Range Rover and a home he could ill-afford.

Addicted to conspicuous consumerism large and small, Ayres becomes dependent on gourmet take-out and spray tans, abusing the free market system with reckless spending and risky debt. Writing about a party at producer Mike Medavoy's Beverly Park mansion, Ayres admits: "I wish I could report that the spectacle of so much wealth, of so much consumption, was somehow offensive to me. But it wasn't."

Thousands of dollars in the hole, Ayres falls into a "Desperate Period," where spending more buys progressively less. A seemingly inevitable road trip to Las Vegas sees Ayres at the blackjack table, hitting on 19 over and over again, always busting, perhaps a rather too-apt metaphor for his economic dereliction.

Almost, but not quite, too late, Ayres realizes the error of his ways: But no amount of money or swag will transform him from an unpleasant hack into a man of substance and character. The book is far from perfect.

Ayres' confession tries a little too hard to be funny. Descriptions of a bar as "an alcoholic's theme park," or a restaurant that serves "porn food; food that should exist only in fantasy" or of a "Ferrari the color of a crime scene" fall flat. Claiming that the Walt Disney Concert Hall was built amid "crack-houses," or that the "kids on the street in Calcutta . . . wear Rolexes now" is lame humor and lazy reporting.

Ayres' wondering "how much more can the Hispanics take of white people? When are they going to start throwing their weight around, like the blacks did after the Rodney King beating" is as gratuitously stereotypical as Ayres' observation that "Latinos, after all, are good at coups. They have revolution know-how -- just like they have construction know-how, gardening know-how, car-parking know-how." Not quite as jarring are Ayres' later attempts at profundity, whether in regard to global warming or the failed policies of Alan Greenspan.

Despite these tonal missteps, Ayres still manages to produce a useful eyewitness testimony of an immense catastrophe. Like Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year," or William Shirer's "Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent," Ayres' work is the stuff of history, a primary source for posterity.

It also cements Ayres' reputation as a prime exponent of what may be a new type of journalist: the "Nebbish Narcissist."

Combining first-class reporting opportunities with a third-class temperament, Ayres places himself in the midst of important events and then keeps his focus almost entirely on his own discontents and anxieties. Ostensibly embracing the notion that he is a schmuck, utterly unworthy of our attention, Ayres then demands that we pay him exclusive attention. No event, no matter how large, is considered except in relation to how it affects Ayres.

Ayres' first book, "War Reporting for Cowards," described the horrors and confusion of battle. Unwittingly placed on a Pentagon media list, too embarrassed to admit he was afraid to go overseas, Ayres was reluctantly embedded in a U.S. Marine unit. Ayres' chronicle of his nine days in the field, and his constant efforts to desert, conveyed the reality of war in all its absurdity and terror far better than other, more dispassionate, more traditional forms of reportage.

Because "Death by Leisure" is not about death but wealth, it lets Ayres give greater reign to his temperament. His self-obsession, unleashed in the proximity of a good story, combined with bad work habits and a terrible attitude, make for a unique, if uneven, reading experience, but one that is never boring

Seeing the world through the prism of Ayres' own wants and needs is not necessarily enjoyable. But it makes Ayres the perfect chronicler of this imperfect age.


Jonathan Shapiro, an adjunct professor at the USC School of Law, is a writer and producer on the NBC drama "Life."

Los Angeles Times Articles