DEATH BY SUNSHINE marks the welcome return of Allison Burnett's deliciously vainglorious and perverse protagonist B. K. Troop, familiar to those who have read Burnett's previous Troop novels, Christopher (2003) and its sequel, The House Beautiful (2006). Troop is a true original: an aging, alcoholic, pretentious, gay memoirist, an impoverished wine snob and would-be Lothario who fixates on all the wrong targets for his amorous advances. A roiling brew of hormones, Troop is prone to fits of vanity, self-pity, cranky erudition, and sudden moments of improbably, impetuous bravery. He is at once impatient with a world that refuses to acknowledge his brilliance and given to drunken wallowing in the realization that he is a failure and an object of contempt to almost everyone he meets. Troop is haunted by an abusive childhood — "memories of midnight whispers, strange rashes, painful bruises, waking from nightmares to something far worse" — and yet, he is still randy and delighted by literature and life's small pleasures. In short, he's one of the great comic characters in recent literature, on a par with Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.
Both his earlier books (yes, Burnett is a he; Allison was also his father's name) were set in Troop's beloved New York City and framed as memoirs: Christopher recounts Troop's tortuous stratagems to seduce the eponymous straight university student with whom he's fallen in love. In The House Beautiful, Troop lucks into inheriting a brownstone that he turns into a little artists colony to pay the rent and fill the loneliness in his life, and where he once again becomes frustratingly fixated on a shy young student, Adrian.
Death by Sunshine is again in memoir form, but takes the writer out of his comfort zone (if such a thing is possible) recounting his quixotic odyssey to the City of Angels. Apparently offered a chance to have his first book (Christopher) made into a movie, Troop self-consciously and self-loathingly follows the tradition of prior literati who migrated west to sell their souls to the industry, itching to at last be rich and famous, while at the same time bemoaning their devil's bargain.
Burnett — also a screenwriter, producer and director with more than a dozen feature credits, including Fame and Autumn in New York — skillfully weaves in a number of genres appropriate to the adventure: The book begins as a comic road trip (or rather a rail trip, as Troop can neither drive a car nor abide air travel), evolves into a Hollywood cautionary tale, and then takes a turn to become a noir murder mystery. On the cross-country train-ride, Troop throws himself at the first available target, a handsome, sullen drunkard who may or may not be the scion of a Mafia family. But this is a short-lived obsession. Arriving in the Southland, Troop encounters a menagerie of indigenous types and tropes: the carnivorous and enhanced would-be starlet; the fraudulent producer; the D-girl; the mysterious acting coach; the desperate screenwriter; the seedy motel near the glamor of Beverly Hills and the romance of the Pacific, and yet worlds away from both. There's also the subplot of a predatory stage mother and her abused little girl. These are the kinds of elements familiar in Hollywood literature from The Day of ...