A star of 1980s fiction tries for a comeback

In its last pages, Bret Easton Ellis's latest novel shows him at his best. But some of the rest may horrify.

Most writers have, at one time or another, been asked the dreaded question: "Is so-and-so supposed to be you?" Few, though, have faced the question as relentlessly as has Bret Easton Ellis.

Heck, people assumed he was writing about himself even when his main character was one of the creepier serial killers to stalk modern fiction. After 20 years of this, it's perhaps not surprising that Ellis finally gave up and just named his main character after himself. (You've got to admit, the name does roll off the tongue.)

Ellis isn't the first writer to look in the mirror and find a hero (or antihero) staring back at him. Philip Roth traded in his Zuckerman alter ego for one named "Philip Roth" in several books - and then threw in an impostor for good measure in "Operation Shylock." Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote himself and his writer's block, and a fictional twin into 2002's "Adaptation." And Kinky Friedman, country singer and Texas gubernatorial candidate, has penned 17 mysteries starring a country singer named Kinky Friedman. (Ellis also indulges in a second alter ego, "the writer," who likes to point out nifty touches to the main character, "Bret." Still following me?)

"Lunar Park" opens with a recap of "Bret's" life up until October 2003. Only Ellis knows how closely this mirrors his own. It is, however, a fact that his first novel, "Less Than Zero," made him famous before he was out of college.

While readers may wonder if all the excesses "Bret" catalogs in the first chapter occurred (did he really crash a Ferrari naked? did the cast of "St. Elmo's Fire" come to his graduation party?) the real story doesn't require any hyperbole.

"I found myself being labeled by just about everyone as the voice of this new generation. The fact that I was only twenty-one and there were no other voices yet seemed not to matter." According to "Bret," he, writer Jay McInerney (who makes a guest appearance in "Lunar Park"), and the rest of the Brat Pack spent the 1980s indulging in the Reagan-era excesses their books lampooned.

Then came Ellis's third book, "American Psycho," the tale of a Wall Street serial killer released in 1991. The graphic material kicked up a firestorm, with The New York Times reviewing it under the headline "Don't Buy This Book," and the National Organization of Women organizing a boycott.

Other critics have defended it as a brilliant satire, but Ellis himself has recently stepped back from the extreme violence. "When I got to the violence sequences I was incredibly upset and shocked," Ellis told the New York Times recently. "I can't believe that I wrote that."

In "Lunar Park," an exhausted "Bret" has come to the same conclusion about his heroin- and cocaine-fueled existence. He's married an actress named Jayne Dennis, and taken refuge in the suburbs. (Despite the existence of a fan website, Dennis is pretty definitely a figment of the unmarried Ellis's imagination.)

After three months of life on Elsinore Lane (do note the "Hamlet" references), "Bret" has fallen off the wagon and sent it careening off a cliff: He and his wife are sleeping in separate bedrooms, and his son, Robby, can hardly stand to be around him.

Then the novel takes a detour into some literal-minded horror. You see, "Bret" is being haunted - by both his past and his writing. His house keeps growing green shag carpeting and pink stucco walls, like his childhood California home. A young man who's a doppelgänger for Ellis at 21 shows up, bearing the name of the hero from "Less Than Zero." His dad's tombstone appears in the yard on Halloween night. His stepdaughter's toy bird appears to have developed predatory instincts. More ominously, boys about Robby's age have been disappearing from the neighborhood; more gruesomely, someone is recreating the murders in "American Psycho."

While the Ellis of "Lunar Park" backs away from the more transgressive material of "Glamorama" and "American Psycho," that doesn't mean he's auditioning for the role of the 21st-century Jane Austen. There is still plenty in this new novel that's calculated to shock.

But "Lunar Park" owes its emotional punch to two things: the theme of estranged fathers and sons, and Ellis's undeniable eye for detailed satire. Take his description of a child's party: "Two weeks prior to the actual event there had been a 'rehearsal' party in order to gauge which kids 'worked' and which did not.... The whole thing seemed harmless - just another gratuitously whimsical upscale birthday party - until I started noticing that all the kids were on meds (Zoloft, Luvox, Celexa, Paxil) that caused them to move lethargically and speak in affectless monotones. And some bit their fingernails until they bled and a pediatrician was on hand 'just in case.' "

His 6-year-old stepdaughter pops Skittles the way she sees her mother pop prescription pills. The most genuinely frightening thing in the book is the fact that "Bret" has healthier ideas about parenting than the adults who aren't on cocaine.

While "Bret" spends as much time flirting with a female student as he does attempting to get closer to his son, there's enough real grief in the thwarted relationships he has with both Robby and his late father to make readers wish Ellis had spent more time writing about that than in creating anagrams for murderous toy birds.

But there's no denying the beauty of the ending. It's both surprising and unlike anything else in the book. If it's a sign of things to come, the literary exorcism Ellis conducts in "Lunar Park" has succeeded.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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