| "Misadventures in the (213)," the debut of Detour columnist Dennis Hensley, may be the first novel that really should have been a Web soap opera: It's woefully episodic, feverish for attention and utterly confused about just what makes the medium interesting in the first place. Since the medium we're talking about here is the bound, papyrus kind, it makes for rough going when the novel reads like shorthand for some other form -- the chatty coverage of a hyperactive B-movie. But the structural problems here are just the beginning. Hensley's opus is so shallow you could wade in it without getting wet.
Hensley's alter ego is Craig Clybourn, a soi-disant "Hollywood clichi: the new kid on the cul-de-sac with a script to schmoose." Craig, an ex-cruise ship worker, arrives in L.A. to bang out revisions of his screenplay "Deck Games," fumble his way out of the closet and support the never-ending sexcapades of his friends Dandy (a sitcom star), |ber-publicist Miles and his earnest pal Ulysses (who seems to be commuting over from another sensibility entirely).
Hensley is the kind of writer whose characters "devour the new issue of Movieline," compete to be on "Circus of the Stars" and seem unable to process the world without referring to the Olsen twins, Adrian Zmed, Charo or the rest of the human patio furniture of Los Angeles (the back cover provides a handy list of the book's "special guest stars"). Hensley even makes his rallying cry explicit: "Give me E! or Give me Death." Not surprisingly, AIDS, addiction, even River Phoenix's sidewalk martyrdom make no appearance in the book, save for one lethargic, attenuated suitor -- who turns out to be a malnourished vegan.
Hensley, it seems, was brought up on reading script treatments, but the failure's not entirely his fault. L.A.'s an easy target, and better writers like Bret Easton Ellis (OK, marginally better) have, like him, inadvertently created valentines. For all its flat depravity, "Less Than Zero" still came off as romanticized. "Misadventures" wants you to giggle along, and this is where the novel really chafes. In a typical passage, Hensley writes, "Claudia glares at Cliff, who's leaning on the chain-link fence like an overgrown Outsider looking on as an octet of spirit-pushers in bra tops spell out victory, which, for your information, is 842-8679 on the telephone keypad."
The jacket tries to connect "Misadventures" and Armistad Maupin's far more tender and touching "Tales From the City," but the real precursor is Douglas Coupland -- and by comparison, the Canadian author is a Proust of pop-cult. I'm not a huge fan, but at least Coupland can be credited with some of the first and best integrations of contemporary media and fiction ("Generation X" and "Microserfs" come to mind). At least Coupland is listening. In "Misadventures," the compulsive nattering of brand names, TV shows, bands, gum and guest stars are place holders for the work of description and observation. The props of "Misadventures" lead such brief half-lives that it'll be a wonder if two years from now anyone will get the expired references.