Saturday, February 19, 2005


Gotham Diaries, by Tonya Lewis Lee and Crystal McCrary Anthony, Read by Pamella D’Pella, Books on Tape, 2004

There’s something particularly obnoxious about books written today that are about rich people. Too often, the authors are not, in fact, to the manor born, and create an ersatz effect by name dropping designer clothing labels and ritzy products, hoping to make up in branding what they lack in expertise. Reading previous generations books about wealthy characters is free from this affectation, demonstrating either how democratic authorship has become or demonstrating how vapidly materialistic Americans are now. Possibly both are true.

To read Brideshead Revisited, one never gets the impression that Waugh is overly impressed with wealth (his experiences in private schools among them, no doubt), while our current crop of scribbling drivelers are constantly awe-struck by Cristal champagne and Chanel. And yet, something doesn’t ring true throughout. For example, in the ineptly named Gotham Diaries, the high rollers, when they quaff scotch, prefer Johnny Walker Black Label, because all billionaires prefer the kind of scotch that most Americans can buy at the local liquor shop and not any of that fine 20-year aged stuff. Oh no, dear, it's not Crest, it's Crest Ultra White toothpaste. Please.

I would also like to take note of the authors’ choice of title. While New York is often dubbed Gotham for its sinister qualities, nothing quite sinister happens throughout the book save a little unsuccessful scamming of the wealthy and a cheating husband. Scary, eh? Gotham engenders thoughts of crime, vice, seediness, none of which really plays much of a role among the well-heeled. The choice is less than pointless, the kind of thing people come up with brainstorming what sounds good. Secondly, diaries? There’s not one single diary or first person narrative or even a character with the requisite inner life to keep a diary, so the second portion of the name is likewise useless non-information, just window dressing bullshit.

The book starts with a welter of short introductions to a variety of characters who at first seem only tangentially related, a sort of seventeen degrees of separation, and we are given so many, so quickly, and in such brief scenes, that the book’s beginning is like going to a series of parties of no one you know and only being given name introductions. Like a series of parties without anything to hold your interest or keep you entertained. The book is marketed as a satire, but on that score it falls woefully short. No specific types are skewered with any length or effectiveness, no particular social scene is reamed through and through. The closest we get to any decent satire is when real estate broker Manny Marks takes newly wealthy clients the Rayes to various properties. To finalize, they have to have the place checked out by a feng shui specialist and a psychic.

Manny, an up-from-poverty gay black man, should inspire our sympathies with his classic overcoming and struggle storyline, yet he’s a backstabbing, social-climbing ass kisser who acts in loathsome self-interest and sneers at every one of his clients unless they are rich and powerful and able to allow him a higher leg up. Then he just uses them for what he needs. A Road to Damascus moment in the book would go a long way toward his salvation in the reader’s mind, but it never happens. Good satire works best when there is a sympathetic character against whom we can reflect what’s being speared. Every trip through hell needs a Virgil, but Manny is not that person.

The character the authors do serve up for us as the book’s moral center is a bored, born-well-off-and-married-up wife of billionaire Ed Thomas, Lauren Thomas. Lauren has become tired of the philanthropic society balls and dinners and corporate functions she must endure. Ed, a beverage bottling billionaire, is described as someone who “all America was fascinated with.” Yes, he sounds amazingly scintillating. Beverage bottling, you say? Whew, I could hear about that all day. Listening to her malaise makes me feel absolutely zero sympathy. Gosh, it’s so darned hard being filthy rich and never having to worry and being able to do whatever you want and just not knowing, darn it, how to fulfill yourself. Sigh.

Lauren’s storyline is filled with long, useless flashbacks that could have been summed up in single paragraphs as they don’t advance the plot, deepen our understanding, or engage our sympathy with her. In fact, they just read like boring anecdotes provided by amateurs at story pacing. We’re supposed to like Lauren, but she’s simply a ennui-stuffed dilettante who directs small “documentaries” for the Style Channel, a position of directorship she holds (apparently) merely by dint of her wealth and not her talent. This affectation towards striving to make art (with movies about models, yawn yawn) is less than interesting and doesn’t do much to make Lauren seem deep, passionate, committed to something.

Once, in reflecting on her life, Lauren thinks, “Even the feminists couldn’t argue with her for loving her husband, as long as she got the credit for her work.” Why? Is feminist thought somehow incompatible with heterosexuality, marriage, and love? It’s one strange sentiment of many throughout the book. For example, reporters don’t use tape recorders, but spiral notepads. I find that difficult to buy that fashion journalists use paper and pen at their swank functions when shouting questions to celebrities and models. In another instance, Manny thinks “Only in Manhattan would the spiritually enlightened person equate one’s inner light with one’s outer attire.” Really. That wouldn’t happen in say, California? That doesn't happen every single Sunday in some church somewhere in America?

The villain of the piece is the once-glorious socialite Tandy Brooks. Recently widowed and newly discovering her dead husband left her deep in a valley of debt, Tandy schemes and scams ways to get back on top. We're supposed to dislike Tandy for her bitterness and her inability to recognize when the ship has sailed without her, but she is by far the most interesting character of the whole book. Envious of Lauren her youth, her beauty, and her rich husband, Tandy plots a real estate scam on Lauren and Ed, using Manny as her front.

Basically, the scam runs that Manny will contract with a certain building’s seller to net her $30 million while charging Ed and Lauren $40 million, pocketing the difference and splitting it with Tandy. Complicating matters is Ed contacting Manny to buy an apartment for his mistress. Curiously, Manny gets all moralistic about getting the girlfriend digs, claiming it's double-crossing his best friend, Lauren. Yet he doesn’t blink at essentially stealing $10 million. I guess business is business.

Part of the problem is that every single character in this book save Tandy is blithely unaware when smoke is being blown up their asses. They seem to exist in a fog of stupidity wherein the most transparent of motives can be glossed over with a couple of compliments on one's brand name couture. That seems to be one of the primary occupations of Tandy and Manny and Ed and many others throughout the book: gladhanding and ass blowing.

Manny dreams of gladhanding and ass blowing his way into even higher society like that of the CEO of American Express who he only sees across the room at a party. Please. While Manny may live well, a small time properties broker isn't quite in the class of heads of international business.

And that's another thing that irks about the book. Rich people who aren't satisfied and always want more. Tandy seethes when she doesn't get the finest table at a charity dinner. Manny strives and strives and strives some more, spending in a flurry of showy flash purchasing. He believes he lives “royalty check to royalty check." Yes, when you sell apartments in Manhattan and live from your 6 percent of $3.5 million to 6 percent of $3.5 million life must be tough. Truly. That sounds like fertile ground for satirical zingers, but Manny is made both too shallow to be emblematic of something larger and he's oddly presented too sympathetically for the authors to turn him inside out for our delectation.

It isn’t that the authors are particularly bad at writing per se. It's just their plotting and structuring is weak and they have a quaint purity out of place in satire. Descriptive mise en scene is often well done, like the scene at the Brazilian bikini wax salon which gave me painful chills down to my sphincter with its occasional reference in the midst of narration to the pull of hair from vaginal lips. But their is a queer delicacy by the authors for anything too particularly nasty. When Manny gets the shits from his day at a New Age spa, it is only described in terms of painful stomach cramps and trips to the restroom, so dainty, so little made of it. And the sex scenes are very foreplayish then coyly turn to the kind of mushy purple prose of which romances are made:

He had unzipped her jeans and slid his hands inside her panties before she fully realized what was happening. Then his fingers made their way inside her, gently stroking and maneuvering the swollen lips aside in search of her most coveted spot.

Egads. We are treated to that euphemism as well as "most secret spot" and other such "spot" based formulations. Hardnesses again are pressing against haunches and the authors demure hot writing for shy blinking and eyelash batting, which is again just too too goosamery for causticity.

Pamella D’Pella, I believe, was one of the various readers for Eric Jerome Dickey’s turd of a book. Hearing her at once familiar velvety tones gave me an instant revulsion. I worried desperately about how bad this book was going to be. I should have been. Apparently, Ms. D’Pella chooses to read the most bubblegum crapola of African-American fiction. When she gets going she’s okay, but there are frequent moments where she slows down to linger over certain details and annunciates with overly emphatic precision. This would be effective if there was a point to it, but often there isn't. Might I also suggest that if you’re reading about born-wealthy, toney-schooled, upper class black folks, birfday is just a bit too geh-toe.

Her rending of Manny is particularly inconsistent. He’s supposedly from Alabama and has lived in Manhattan for over a decade, yet his accent comes off like British Hong Kong ESL mixed with southern retard. If this was some arch-affectation it was lost on me. In fact, the whole point of this book was lost on me. Marketed as a satire, it provided little of that; advertised as a peek inside black wealth, it rather unsympathetically and unconvincingly painted a bling-bling world of characters impossible to feel any goodwill towards; and feted as gripping read, Gotham Diaries is a stinker that never lives up to any of its advertising. Perhaps that's its greatest irony.

No comments: