Seth Greenland's lively novel "Shining City" tells the story of a hardworking, unemployed San Fernando Valley resident who inherits a relative's business — and discovers that his new job title is "pimp."
by Seth Greenland
Bloomsbury, 307 pp., $24.99
“It was a warm September night, and the San Fernando Valley sprawled in the distance like a corpse strewn with festive lights,” reads a sentence in the opening paragraph of Seth Greenland’s lively second novel, “Shining City.” The reader settles in, knowing exactly what to expect: a Los Angeles novel, a wry satire, a tongue-in-cheek tale of a regular guy succeeding against all odds. And then we get jolted a little later on, as the book’s regular-guy hero suddenly becomes a family-values pimp.
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Marcus Ripps, a hardworking (and newly unemployed) family man living in the wrong end of the Valley, thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he inherits his ne’er-do-well older brother’s dry-cleaning business. But what goes in and out of that unassuming storefront, he soon observes, aren’t freshly cleaned suits and dresses, but women with envelopes of cash. Marcus, understandably, is initially befuddled:
“It was a disorienting sensation, as if he’d been exploring a Pacific atoll and had come upon a production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ being performed by a cast of house cats.”
But Marcus is nothing if not an American entrepreneur, and soon (under his new business name of Breeze) he’s transformed the business with tidy bookkeeping, health coverage, a 401(k) plan and a book club for the employees — where they read, with some disgruntlement, “Anna Karenina.” And when an inconvenient corpse turns up (as that opening paragraph hinted), Marcus’ resourceful wife, Jan, becomes a co-conspirator.
Greenland, a film and television writer, keeps the plot racing along, busily juggling his characters and their snappy dialogue. He’s got a clean and often funny style; creating characters that are colorful yet not so outlandish they tip the book off balance. (Marcus’ agreeable mother-in-law, who finds new life in her geriatric years by learning how to work a pole, seems a bit beyond the pale. But then again, this is L.A. and maybe all the grandmothers are doing it.) And, just when he seems to have written himself into a corner, he saves Marcus’ rags-to-riches story. Success, it turns out, is all about who you know — and how you spin.