Arts : Only on Earth 

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As commentators tirelessly remind us, Southern California is a place unto itself. Especially the Hollywood Hills. Up there, the movies’ gravitational pull eclipses the ocean’s daily suck, spawning a society that is sun-blasted but vitamin-deficient, numbed by its good fortune into a trance of melancholy.

The day-trader hero of A.M. Homes’s stylish fourth novel is a perfect embodiment of this society. Rich beyond belief, Richard lives like a 21st-century pasha in his ultra-modern house overlooking Los Angeles. A nutritionist designs his meals, a trainer sculpts his physique, and a house-cleaner makes all the dirt go away. Every morning, he runs on the treadmill while his pretty neighbor does laps in her pool.



This Book Will Save Your Life
By A.M. Homes
Viking
$24.95, 372 pages


This tableau is shattered when Richard feels a pain in his chest. In the wake of his brush with mortality, Richard’s ordered life crumbles around him — quite literally. A sinkhole begins to swallow his house, a weeping mother accosts him in a supermarket, and his estranged son heads for LA. Before long, Richard finds himself trying to make amends with his decades of selfishness.

This kind of middle-age melt-down has already animated films like Lost in Translation or, more appropriately, Steve Martin’s LA Story. Like that movie, Homes sticks to a small palate of themes — irony and loss — which she layers in an exquisite portrait of a man attempting to swim against society’s decadence. “We live in a time when no one wants to remember,” an aging hippie says to Richard. When the inevitable happens, the unobservant say, “Only in LA.” As this book reveals, they really should know better.

- John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.


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