A story more L.A. than the city itself

Where else would paramedics pause to note your art collection?

Richard Novak has everything and nothing all at once. (Most important, he will have a movie in him someday soon.)

Long established as a financial success, Novak, the protagonist of This Book Will Save Your Life, A.M. Homes's uneven new novel, has pared his life to the bare essentials of an affluent existence. He has a housekeeper, a nutritionist, a trainer - and a computer to track his myriad investments. He has no job because he doesn't need one.

So what could go wrong as Richard gazes from his mansion at Los Angeles below? Seized by a panic attack, he thinks he's dying and calls 911.

This sequence, which occurs early on, sets the tone for Homes's delirious novel, a whirling dervish of black humor and script-ready serendipity. Soon after calling 911 and describing his symptoms, Richard is transferred to a counselor while awaiting paramedics.

To distract him, the counselor asks, "Richard, what was the last movie you saw?" As Homes describes the exchange, "It was one of those 'only in L.A.' questions - even as you were dying people were talking about the movies."

By the time the paramedics arrive, all assembled pause for reflection upon Richard's pricey art collection. "That's a nice de Kooning," one of the attendants tells the still-stricken Richard. The paramedics go on to discuss Mark Rothko as well as Jackson Pollock and his on-screen doppelgänger, Ed Harris. Exasperated, Richard snaps, "Are you paramedics or art experts?"

As much as anything else, Homes has written a paean to Los Angeles, from its sun-soaked dreaminess to its plagues of movie stars, health-food obsessions, earthquakes, wildfires, and other environmental disasters. Her novel, alas, does not include novel perspective. And the relentless parade of quirky characters and too-cute coincidences grate.

Richard emerges from the hospital with no discernible malady, save an utter disconnection from life. In Richard's world, too much sun and too much money equals so much angst. On a whim, he interrupts his ride home from the hospital with a visit to a doughnut shop, where he befriends the optimistic immigrant owner. The doughnut entrepreneur, Anhil, speaks in stereotypical broken English and tosses out enough gratitude-is-good homilies to leave Oprah glazed and confused.

From the doughnut-shop counter and beyond, Richard is inexorably led into new and renewed relationships: with his ex-wife, with his alienated son, with a depressed housewife he meets in the produce section of a grocery store.

This being L.A., Richard, of course, lives around the corner from a movie star, who, among other things, assists the novel's beleaguered hero as he rescues a horse from a sinkhole. (Clumsy message hammered home? Check.) A county bureaucrat, sent to determine the origins of said sinkhole, learns of Richard's neighbor and comes bearing, yes, a screenplay. This is "Get Shorty" - with a layer of flabby sentimentality clouding the picture.

Richard is confused (he goes so far as to spend several days in a one of those ubiquitous New Age silent retreats) and an awkward parent. He redeems himself with moments of empathy (he buys his son and the family-fleeing housewife Volkswagen Beetles), but as at least one reviewer has already noted, such acts are easy when money is all but infinite.

Even as Richard rescues a kidnapped woman from her abductor's trunk and makes national news, even after Bob Dylan makes a cameo, even after a surreal trip to Disneyland, Homes just barely keeps her novel from devolving into a full-scale natural disaster (yes, these figure in, as well). Homes' story embodies much of what she skewers.

She is writing about a place obsessed with movies, and the dialogue seems to float just above an invisible laugh track. "I don't like men," one character says as Richard heaves heavy belongings into the aforementioned housewife's new apartment. Richard's riposte: "Someone's got to carry the heavy stuff."

With "This Book Will Save Your Life," A.M. Homes has crafted a novel akin to a director's-cut DVD: some sharp and shapely editing could make a dramatic difference in quality. This being Hollywood, the important question is big-screen adaptability. May I suggest William Hurt, riding high from his recent Oscar nomination, as Richard Novak? If Homes needs additional advice, she can, of course, just have her people call mine.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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