Take the story “Nowhere to Run” about a former welterweight champ who is totally forgotten, a “lost soul dozing in the corner” of a cheap hotel lobby:
He lives in a world that skirts reality, a world filled with panhandling buddies and visions of old movies, a world where no one can hurt him. Late at night, when he is alone in the lobby, alone with his jumbled thoughts, he will rise from the couch where he sleeps and slowly walk toward the full-length mirror. He will raise his fists and bend at the knees and, suddenly, he will be Johnny Bratton, welterweight champion, once again. Never mind that his hair is more gray than black or that he is an easy fifty pounds over his fighting prime. You can’t take the past away from him.
It’s the poignant note of that last sentence, the purest of pure Schulian, that sends the paragraph into the heavens.Many years later when I was an editor/producer at msnbc.com, I asked him to write a column about pop culture. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It was one of the smartest editorial decisions I made. His commentaries riffed on everything from country music to books to celebrities (only when I asked; sometimes I had to). They made the site’s arts coverage worth reading.
Now he has a debut novel out, A Better Goodbye. It’s a noir tale of Los Angeles set in the grim daylight of high-end massage parlor “jack shacks” and second-rate TV actors, petty street thugs, and killer drug dealers. It centers on a young masseuse leading a double life (we’ll get to her) and a former pro boxer by the name of Nick Pafko who never made it as far as Johnny Bratton did in the ring but who’s gaining on him outside it. Pafko, though a good distance from middle age, wonders gravely how he’s going to get out of “the dead end his life had become.” As to the past, it holds no glory for him. Much the opposite, it is something he is desperate to escape.
Schulian sketches mood, scene, and character with deft strokes. For instance, when we meet Nick for the first time, he’s been awakened on “a chilly March dawn” by the Mexican gardeners “who lived in the termite palace next door … their radio blaring music that was heavy on happy accordions and ai-yi-yi-yi’s.” Meanwhile, the “rising sibilance on the 405 let him know that last night’s rush hour was already turning into morning drive time without a break. The trick with the traffic was to pretend it was the ocean …”
Nick didn’t get a good night’s sleep. It’s like that on too many mornings.
Sleep had come hard … refusing to budge until exhaustion got the best of the voices in his head. The voices had shouted loudest when the rest of him was ready to shut down, and now, looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, he could see the weariness in his eyes. There were still women who liked his looks — they liked his smile too, though a smile was a sometime thing for him. It was as if his mind was always focused on what he saw now, scars above and below each eye and a broken nose that had never been set properly. At least those wounds had healed. It was the deeper ones he feared never would, the ones he was forever struggling to keep at bay.
When we first meet Jenny Yee, she’s going by the name Suki. It turns out to be just one of the names she uses for work, where she is much in demand because “Asian girls were always in demand, even the snotty princesses who didn’t want to get all the way naked …” She’s been on her own since the age of 16, when her Korean immigrant mother (a battered, alcoholic former stripper who found religion) died in a one-car car crash with a bottle of cheap Scotch at her side. Now, six years later, Jenny is saddled with bills — rent, auto insurance, DMV penalties, lawyer’s fees to fight the DMV — all of which keeps her in the sex trade getting naked all the way despite her conviction that “massage was supposed to be a means to an end, not a defining experience.”
That end is to graduate from the community college where she’s studying so she can enroll at UCLA.
She liked to sit up front in class. The girls she had made friends with at school, the ones who had no clue about her other life and knew her only as Jenny, said she wanted the professors to see she looked like Lucy Liu, only cuter. Though she never said so, she enjoyed the flattery.
She’s a good student — eager to learn, diligent, an admirer of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, no less, especially “the way Bishop had written about mastering the art of loss, insisting that you could lose anything in your life and get on without it.”
Jenny knew from experience that wasn’t true, and she knew Bishop had known it, too. That was the connection she had made with a poet who was a lesbian, an alcoholic, and dead, three things Jenny wasn’t …
What Jenny is — naive, calculating, fragile, savvy, tender, abused, and scared of being raped, mangled, and shot dead by killers who’ve been targeting massage parlors around L.A. — is a combination of contradictions that complicates her life and in due time leads to her involvement with Nick. I don’t know the noir literature of crime fiction well enough to know for certain whether Jenny is as rare a creature as Nick thinks she is. But I’d be willing to bet there aren’t many as intriguing as Schulian makes both of them.
Finally, and I probably should have said this sooner, A Better Goodbye offers a seamy panorama of Los Angeles. Schulian knows its neighborhoods from top to bottom, and he surrounds Nick and Jenny with a large cast of characters who seem unique to L.A. in their collective miasma. You couldn’t get a more authentic sense of the city today.