Viva Sinatra

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Michael Ventura is my kind of writer. That is to say, he exhibits a formidable intelligence, yet doesn't just soothe your preconceptions. He's always passionate, frequently challenging, often innovative in his thinking. Sometimes, he gets it all wrong: I still remember his essay on the links between voodoo and rock & roll. I don't have a copy anymore, which leads me to think that, filled with horseshit as it was, I used it to fertilize my garden the year I grew that three-pound eggplant. But then he'll turn around and write something like the piece on his childhood poverty and the new welfare reform act that makes me want to stand up and cheer after every sentence.

Plus, he's got a lot of facets. He does screenplays, writes essays, and, as with the book currently at hand, writes novels. I've only read one of his previous two novels, Night Time, Losing Time, and, like this one, it was a great, sprawling, nearly chaotic roil of characters and events driven relentlessly ahead by a writer firmly in control of what was going on, no matter what it seemed like on any given page.

The Death of Frank Sinatra by Michael Ventura (Henry Holt, $22.50 hard) is the first of three novels starring Las Vegas private eye Mike Rose, and it certainly whets the appetite for the ones to come. (The next one, One Marilyn Too Many, is due this fall.) Like any good private-eye novel, it's hard to summarize succinctly without giving too much away, but that's as much because Rose, who comes from a Mafia background (his family name was originally Rossellini), is a complex character who defines the way the action is perceived as it is because the action itself is so complex.

It starts with Rose waking up with the knowledge that this is a day on which "he probably had to kill somebody, and that others were trying to kill him." The somebody is Isidore "Zig" Feldman, an old Mob soldier and pal of Rose's father, who disappeared when Mike was a kid, and had become Mike's mother's best friend afterwards. In a meeting at a place long used by the Mob to kill people in the desert outside of town, Mike learns that Feldman had killed his father there, leaving the body in the desert where nature would quickly dispose of it. There was a meat-hook involved, and it had something to do with the Kennedy assassination. There's only one thing to do, and, with a pistol his mother bequeathed him in a strongbox that also contained pornographic pictures of her, he does it.

From there, his wanderings take him to a church run by an ex-stripper named Joy, a sometime-recruiter of prostitutes for the Mob, taking with him Virginia, a homeless young woman he's found sleeping outside his office. Back home, wearing nothing but a bathrobe Joy has given him after burning his clothes, he finds some messengers from Gino "The Gent" Lampedusa, the local capo, waiting for him. There's a message, but even after they rough him up, he's not sure what it is. He knows he's got people looking for him, those "others," employees of Mr. Sherman, a WASP computer software company owner whose wife has employed Rose for protection from him. Rose doesn't want the Mob to think these guys are FBI. And there's another problem waiting for him at home: His brother Alvi, older, but afflicted with mental illness, has been living with him after checking out of another institution. He's all the family Rose has, and he's like a lucky charm. Alvi's decided to become a Mormon, to pray their family into salvation.

For the rest of the book, Rose has to find Mr. and Mrs. Sherman, decide whether or not to kill them, save his ass from Lampedusa's people, and make sure his brother doesn't lose it in public. He fails on the last score, at least: While attending a Sinatra show, Alvi, going on a manic peak, rushes the Chairman of the Board, sending him into a panic attack. That night, Las Vegas radio is awash with the story that Sinatra has had a stroke and died. Another karmic debt in Rose's relationship to the city, it would appear, although things don't improve noticeably when it turns out to have been a false alarm.

Things work out, needless to say (after all, there are two more books due), but not without a lot of wonderfully noir-ish (and, come to think of it, Ventura-ish) meditations on family, life, death, and honor. A novel of ideas encased in a hard-boiled, private-eye-and-the-mob thriller? Why, of course, and carried out with a sense of bravura and feeling for the location that sucks you in and keeps you glued to the page. Like I said, my kind of writer.

There's a weird postscript to this book, too. Some time after I'd read it, a friend loaned me the latest novel by Steve Erickson, Ventura's L.A. Weekly colleague and a very talented novelist himself. The novel, Amnesiascope, though, is a mess, one of those novels about writers that only writers could be interested in, let alone like. But Ventura is a character in it, and it's sort of fun to watch Erickson poke fun at his earnestness. What's truly odd, though, is that at one point, Erickson's narrator goes to Las Vegas, where he steps into a bar that figures in Ventura's novel. It was at that point that I remembered a scene in Ventura's book that seemed out of place, unnecessary. Like one of those super-hero comics where the action is continued in another title to beef up sales, Ventura and Erickson crossed their novels at this point, surely a first in American literary history, if only a silly footnote.

-- Ed Ward

"We may rest assured that we -- that the solid majority of us at any rate -- are in no way vulnerable to the message of art. Because the messenger, eloquent as he may be, invariably speaks a language all his own."

Thus speaks a befuddled criminal psychologist in the debut novel City in Love by Alex Shakar (FC2, $11.95 paper). The message he speaks of is a series of gigantic letters (as in alphabet, not missives) that have been clandestinely inscribed over the face of New York City by a mysterious artist. But the words could also apply to parts of the novel itself; however forceful and skillfully rendered, the opacity of Shakar's prose in some places threatens to undercut what is its sheer transcendence in others.

Shakar is a recent graduate of the University of Texas' prestigious Texas Center for Writers, and as such has taken on an appropriately ambitious project. City in Love is subtitled "The New York Metamorphoses," and its bookjacket notes that the author uses as his foundation Ovid's 2,000-year-old poem recounting the lives and transformations of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. Immediately inviting comparison to such an exalted source is a perilous and gutsy move for a writer to make with his first novel, but while the theme of transformation runs through Shakar's work as it does through Ovid's, the novel is in no way simply classical myth cloaked in modern, urban disguise.

City in Love is actually seven separate pieces about emotionally crippled people struggling with life in New York. The first two pieces, "The Sky Inside" and "A Million Years From Now" are phenomenal, so splendid they set a standard unfortunately not met by the last five stories, which come across a little clumsy in comparison.

The real jewel of the book is "A Million Years From Now," a Pygmalionesque tale of a junk-man who builds the perfect woman out of the abundant trash he culls from the city's dumps. As the artist works on his creation, he tells us, "I add a tattered umbrella, for her awkward glance. I add a garland of twine and frayed newsprint, for the way on an overcast day her face makes the clouds whirl end over end. I add an overexposed Polaroid in a glass frame, for the way on a clear day her hair makes a miracle of the sun... I am crying like a goddamn fool, she's so goddamn beautiful."

And so Shakar pulls together pieces of disparate realities to form an ode to the city he loves. City in Love is a remarkable effort, the sort of work to look back upon with fondness when Alex Shakar steps up as one of our literary lights.-- Leah Welborn

One of the most regrettable aspects of the transition from childhood to adulthood is the loss of whimsy in literature. Think about it. Children, who are by and large happy, get to read books about talking animals. Adults, who are by and large unhappy, get to read books about dressing for success. Coincidence? No.

Fortunately, Peter Mayle has tunneled under the fence of depressing adult literature. A Dog's Life (Random House, $11 paper) is the celebrity memoir of "Boy," the Provençal pooch of dubious ancestry who came to live with Peter Mayle and his wife.

As Boy might inform us, life is what you make of it. Born to the large family of an unprepared single mother, his route in life was anything but assured. In a fit of nocturnal hunger, he once tried to eat his brother's ear. Striking out on his own after an unfortunate hunting experience (followed by an unfortunate kicking experience), Boy experienced some lean times on his way to becoming head of the Mayle household. Despite their friendly demeanor, it appears few merchants are pleased to have an unaccompanied dog on the premises, no matter how innocent his intentions.

As with his best-selling A Year in Provençe and Toujours Provençe, Mayle takes us to his enviable life in rural France. And as with his other bestsellers, the bulk of the book is Mayle's observations on the French (human) condition. But rather than observing France as a displaced Englishman (as in his Provençe series) Mayle here give's us the... er, dog's eye view.

And what a view! Despite his lack of formal education, Boy holds profound philosophical views. From his observations on chickens -- "that happy combination of sport and nourishment" -- to reasons why dogs so often take up with humans ("our most convenient support system") and his own identification with Proust, our Boy has a lot to say.

And though it may seem a pat analysis, A Dog's Life is that rarity in adult literature, a happy book. A real treat. The paws that refreshes.

-- Anna Hanks

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