The Austin Chronicle

Book Review

Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, July 23, 2010, Books

Sick City

by Tony O'Neill
Harper Perennial, 384 pp., $13.99 (paper)

In Tony O'Neill's Los Angeles, the only difference between a bottomed-out junkie and a slot on Celebrity Rehab is a good talent agent. Less blatantly autobiographical than his opening double-barreled blast of Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile, his terse, twitchy new novel, Sick City, still draws heavily on his personal experiences as a substance abuser washed up in Hollywood's shadow. If this were still James Ellroy's City of Angels, O'Neill's protagonists would be the kind of tweakers and twinks that the old demon skull-breaker Captain Dudley Smith would have sliced up and left for the hogs on some Okie's farm. But O'Neill's L.A. has been abandoned to the junkies, and there's no real rain coming to wash his beloved scum off the street. The only trace of those good old, bad old days is the cooling corpse of a cancer-riddled veteran cop, whose aging junkie gigolo lover Jeffrey kisses goodbye before cleaning out his safe. Hiding out in rehab, Jeffrey connects with Randal, the son of a studio executive who was so strung out that he missed his own father's funeral: Now Randal's brother is pulling his marionette strings, forcing him to sober up or get cut off. When they get ahold of a piece of Hollywood memorabilia so twisted that it makes O.J.'s ill-fitting gloves look as sanitary as a Sunset Strip snow globe, it's a question of whether they'll cross the wrong dealer or just OD before their get-rich-quick scheme can flower. O'Neill lines L.A.'s back alleys with syringes and hunting knives, but much as his staccato text spills loving bile on the street-dwelling denizens, his most caustic venom is reserved for the high and mighty of the entertainment industry. Fearless about naming, shaming, and spoofing brand-name burn-outs, O'Neill is the anti-E! News, his jittery tone chopping the land of celebrity excess into near-poetic lines. When his Hollywood burns, even the flames are on meth.

Tony O'Neill, Harry Hunsicker, and Jesse Sublett will be reading from their books at Noir at the Bar, Continental Club Gallery (1315 S. Congress), Tuesday, July 27, 7pm.

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