For several entertaining years (2004-10), Kevin Brass was the Chronicle's media reporter, delivering sharp insight and breezy bons mots, as in his profile of Bush press secretary and former San Diegan PR lady Dana Perino: "Relaxed and confident at the podium, she appears not to possess the sweat gene, an essential gift for a spokesperson." Brass has traveled the world and soaked up a wide range of pop culture, and it sparkles over the edges of his first novel.
At first, The Cult of Truland, set in southern California, reads like a frothy beach book, albeit with an undertow that grows stronger as it goes on. Nominally, it's the story of Jake Truland (not, of course, his "real" name), one of the modern era's celebrities famous for, well, being celebrities. Jake is sort of a writer, known for a booklike object called The Book of Truisms – apparently a collection of aphorisms about fame and its amusements. Otherwise, his means of support are a little vague – "I'm famous, not rich," he tells a casino owner trying pointedly to reinforce Jake's focus on his putative current employment, steering celebrities to the penthouse suite.
A dark thread runs through the otherwise lighthearted narrative, which opens with a mysterious fire at Truland's beach home and is intermittently marked by flying bullets, blackmail, a car chase or two, even a congressional investigation. It's all good publicity, thinks Jake, until these seemingly inconsequential episodes suddenly begin to have real consequences, first to strangers and then to the handful of people closest to him – themselves strangers to the world of "celebrity." (Austin has a sentimental cameo as a place in flyover country where, presumably, sanity and common sense still reign. Brass may have a soft spot for us, but I suspect he could set a novel here that would generate plenty of satirical bite.)
"What I did, my line of work ... I thought it was fun and there was no harm," Truland tells a bloviating congressman. "I was wrong. It has repercussions.... People have died. I have to come to grips with that." Jake does, apparently, come to grips with the repercussions of his paparazzi'd life, although Brass is coy about the final outcome and the book's "mysteries" are never quite solved. I could imagine Jake returning as a reluctant Lew Archer, stumbling over famous bodies and trying to sort out the wicked from the good. I hope he does.
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