"The Itch," the sophomore effort from Benilde Little -- author of the bestselling 1996 novel "Good Hair" -- is a brisk, engaging buppie beach read. Set in the world of the black upper middle class of Los Angeles and New York, the book focuses largely on the lives of two 30ish best friends, Abra, a well-married suburbanite, and Natasha, a flashy, Angelino career girl, who are partners in an upstart film company, the deliciously named Is My Wig On Straight Productions.
The book follows Abra, Natasha and their similarly well-dressed and well-positioned friends as they scratch The(ir) Itch(es) for fulfillment. Abra's itch is for a child -- and for healing the wounds inflicted by her own absentee father; Natasha's is for a husband. Amid all the internal conflicts, there is a good deal of emphasis on hard-won designer labels, documents and locations: Porsches, lunch at Shutters, Tiffany jewels, Ivy League M.B.A.s, Cristal champagne.
The trick of writing yuppie fiction -- regardless of race -- is creating characters with enough depth to stick against such a highly polished surface. At times, the characters in "The Itch" seem more like Colorforms than people of color: There's the well-meaning, self-sacrificing wife; the soulful "gimme" girl; the aloof model; the upwardly mobile, super-slick Wall Street rocket man; the bungling white guy; the bored lawyer husband. In what seems like an effort to make these people unimpeachably archetypal, Little affords them no idiosyncrasies whatsoever. The limited dimensions of these characters are a microcosmic example of the contradiction of assimilation: Playing straight up the middle makes someone perfectly likable, unquestionably acceptable, yet, unfortunately, rather forgettable.
The characters themselves seem all too aware of such a rub. As Abra and Natasha speed along the Los Angeles freeways en route to a pitch meeting, Natasha addresses Abra's East Coast protestations of the requisite "couture casual" Hollywood dress code:
"We've got to play along to get along, darling. When we're Whoopi huge, then we can wear Birkenstocks and not give a fuck."
"But until then --"
"Until then, it's play ball."
The plot clips along at good speed, and as Abra's marriage gets shaken, Natasha meets her dream man and Is My Wig On Straight gains a toehold in Hollywood, the pages turn with ease. Little's prose veers between subtly damning and snappily sympathetic. When Abra's husband, Cullen, bombs at a party, "What had begun as a perfectly fun evening of success bonding ended with a Lean Cuisine and a repeat of 'Seinfeld.'" As Natasha ponders the moves of Miles, the super-successful playboy, "She figured if he was a dog, he was probably housebroken."
For all her overindulgence in brand identification and blandification, Little makes this book satisfying by layering on -- but not belaboring -- issues of family history, racial politics and social posturing. She also refuses to tie all the conflicts into a nice, neat bow. In a nod to her readers' intelligence, she crafts the book to teach the lesson that no matter how conventionally successful you are, having all the "right" props -- and doing what seems like the right thing -- can't smother The Itch.