Los Angeles in Two Parts (June 18, 2003)

Book Show: I steer a brand-new four-door Cadillac through Koreatown, which is much larger than I imagined. Block after block of Korean restaurants and banks and groceries, the rooftops where proprietors stood with rifles to dissuade looters during the Rodney King riots. I haven't been in downtown in the city of angels since Morgan Hatch took me to the L.A. Gun Club several years ago, and that was under cover of night -- and Los Angeles, like most American cities, is more attractive in the dark, better yet after a few drinks and from the perspective of an airplane. As we had flown in the night before the city lights stretched to the horizon, and the grid of harshly lit main avenues seemed harmless and quaint. But down in the trenches, in day's full glare, what comes to mind is sludge, a barely writhing automobile noose, strangling and relentless, the hardening of America's arteries by an endless wound of cars and trucks coughing up and down Olympic Blvd. to Amway meetings, Baptist revivals, cash registers and other indiscretions. The voice on the radio says the Black Dahlia murder has been solved; a son's book claims it was his father's fist that punched the blade into the victim. The district attorney's office comments that the new theory "is interesting." I roll down the window and turn on the air conditioner.

The sprawl of buildings that comprise the Los Angeles Convention Center has nothing to recommend it. It projects a malevolent and dull mediocrity; if Dick Cheney were an edifice, this would be it. It reminds me of Moscone Center in San Francisco and Jacob Javits in New York; in other words, a soul-less asphalt monstrosity dedicated to the bland and numbing pursuit of money, a perfect place for BookExpo America.

I don't know much about BookExpo America, except that it's where the publishing world comes to preen and ogle the latest lit darlings and cash cows of the printed word. There are hundreds of vendors, hawking everything from animal calendars to Zulu dictionaries and the occasional (yet increasingly rare) serious novel. Many booths offer free books. My seemingly limitless capacity for greed kicks in and I scoop up every advance copy in sight; I can always give them out at traffic lights to cute girls in pick-up trucks. At one stall I meet a pair of friendly Canadians hawking a book called "Mr. Chilehead: Adventures in the Taste of Pain." The author writes, "Hot sauce heat tends to kindle libidinal heat, releasing normally respectable people from their inhibitions... People with a penchant for sadomasochism and people who are fanatical about hot sauce are in fact the same people." Really! The book also examines "the trend towards politically incorrect labels, such as Monica's Down on Your Knees Hot Sauce, The Big Hot One, Hot 'n Horny, Burning Bush, Pain and Suffering XXX-Rated, Colon Cleaner, Screaming Sphincter, and Sir Fartalots."

Beats Hillary Clinton's self-serving crap any day.

For several hours I troll the pamphlets and tomes beneath the fluorescent glare, half excited, half revolted. On the bright side, it looks like almost any piece of wormy stool can get published. On the other hand, is there really a marketplace for this much post-literate drivel? Not surprisingly, L. Ron Hubbard has by far the most floorspace. One huge compound is dedicated to Hubbard's science fiction, and another touts his popular fantasy series known as Scientology. (And for the record, I don't want to belong to any club where John Travolta is a member.) A few dozen cultists smile like robots, clutching self-score sheets that offer empowerment and larger penises through a pyramid-scheme designed to enrich a greasy film of bureaucrat-crooks at the expense of one's mind and checkbook.

I stop at the Wiley and Sons booth to ask if longtime valley resident Brad Wiley is around. The woman account executive looks nervous as I tell her that the namesake is an acquaintance; Brad once hired me at Edmeades Winery to clear brush and pick up litter. Friendly faces at Last Gasp Comics, the San Francisco distributor of the great Robert Crumb and many other brilliant and subversive artists. I stop to chat, at home among the decadent and dissident weirdo tracts. In the book signing area a long line to get former porn star Traci Lords's autograph. On either side of her other writers tap their pens in boredom.

My favorite stops are the art publishers such as Last Gasp, Phaidon, Prestel. Substance over the shill. I've got a couple of bags full of stuff I don't want, but hey, it's free. The exception that proves the rule is a book called Timoleon Vieta Come Home by a Brit named Dan Rhodes, whose lucid style makes the afternoon almost humane.

MTV Movie Awards: Big-name Hollywood types are interested in turning my cousin Robert's novel "Boonville" into a movie. As part of the courtship ritual he has been given tickets to the MTV Movie Awards, as one of the co-hosts, whom I only know as Stiffler from American Pie, is hot to make "Boonville" his foray into serious film. We figure if nothing else it will be a lark.

Saturday evening we take a cab from the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Blvd. to the Shrine Auditorium. Police have blocked off the surrounding streets, so the driver drops us off three blocks away. We're near USC, and the balconies and porches of the sorority houses are full of heavily made up young women hoping to glimpse Tom Cruise or Britney Spears. They look disappointed as Robert and I trudge towards the auditorium. As we get closer to the Shrine we see that bleachers have been set up alongside a plush red carpet patrolled by camera crews. A man on a loudspeaker announces stars as they emerge from their bunkers on wheels. "Ladies and gentlemen, rap star 50 Cent." Shrieks and cheers. The police presence is heavy, but we get past the first line of security by flashing our tickets. We walk to the red carpet staging area only to be confronted by a man in a headset and holding a clipboard. We show him our tickets, but he barks, "Go to the main entrance, you can't come this way." We shuffle around the side and ask the guard if we can get in. "No." Do you know where we can get in? "No." Do you have a problem with us selling your first born into slavery? "No, well, get the hell outtahere!" More screams from the lolita section as another spent piece of used jet trash trods upon the plush red shag.

We see a long line of limousines queued up at a gate, we cut to the front, walking between two long black cars. We are stopped by security, who asks if we are limo drivers. Our patience is running short. It's hot, we're walking, we're guests, but no one is letting is in. I take out our VIP parking pass and say, once again, we've got tickets. He looks at the folded parking pass and us strangely: why are we walking if we have a VIP parking pass? Something's not kosher. He sniffs, but waves us through. More hostility and smeared mascara from onlookers and flunkies. Everyone craning to spot a star, a star's car, the turd the star's sharpei left behind. Finally we get to the main door, a very weird and heavy vibe. The crowd is equal parts fake porn star breasts, coke dealers, and starry-eyed adolescent girls dressed to seduce, suddenly the burkha makes beautiful sense.

At our seats we're surrounded by a ridiculous collection of stars, wannabes, and people that have done so much coke they can't stop rubbing their twitching noses. Robert and I agree that fully half of the crowd is on drugs or, for the class yet budget conscious, pretending to be high. The show itself is silly, over-produced teenybop dryhumping to loud music and cartoon crotch humor. Harrison Ford is pretentious and self-important, P. Diddy is a joke, Demi Moore has had her implants removed, you get the picture. Oddly enough, Keanu Reeves seems like one of the only nice people to grace the stage, the rest carefully controlled products selling Sex and Violence and America, e.g., awards for "Best Kiss" and "Scariest Villain." Like our presidency, it's a made-for-TV event. This means lots of downtime as sets are changed, cell phones are dialed, people skipping to the bathroom to do more coke.

The highlight of the evening is when Russian pseudo-lesbian teenage pop duo Tatu perform. They are accompanied by 100 scantily clad Catholic schoolgirls who strip and shove their bottoms into the camera's grateful eye. The crowd goes nuts, though the 40-year-old woman behind me doesn't stop shouting "I LOVE YOU ASHTON!" at a movie star twenty yards away. It's surreal, and I can't help wondering how much longer the Empire can last.

One of the co-host's handlers tells Robert to meet the star in the Green Room afterwards. Given our difficulties in reaching the front door, we have our doubts. But he says just to mention his name, and security will let us inside the magic velvet rope. But when we arrive at the anointed spot, we are denied, ignored, and otherwise spat upon. Robert tries to argue our case to a small uptight man wielding the all-mighty list, but before Robert can utter a syllable, the man snaps, "No!" and scurries off to let six more half naked girls in.

We catch a cab back to the Marmont. Look, there's Posh Spice and David Beckham. Stiffler comes by later and thanks Robert and me for making the show. Flashbulbs go off, a drunk girl asks strangers for cigarettes, someone says Justin Timberlake is stopping by later, a cell phone rings and rings.

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