FEBRUARY 6, 2012
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 The Locust toGet Shorty, but Burnett gives them fresh energy by routing them through Troop’s comic misapprehensions and distinctive voice. Here’s how Troop describes a past-his-prime screenwriter he encounters at a Hollywood whodunit party: “His high dudgeon would have been more impressive if it had not been painfully obvious that he would have given his right leg for the privilege of having a movie star destroy one of his scripts. He was like the stripper who grouses about her customers not two minutes before showing them her ovarian walls. Either quit screenwriting or shut the hell up.” But the description, as Troop is painfully aware, applies equally to himself.
Troop’s sad-sack first encounter with the film industry gives way to more pressing concerns. Through the sex ads of a free paper, he contacts a male prostitute with whom he hopes to pass a few hours of casual lust. The young man who arrives, and who bears little resemblance to the hunk in the ad, is Calvin. Unlike Troop’s lust objects in the two prior novels, Calvin is neither beautiful nor excessively young. Pushing thirty, he is a tall, ungainly, balding stork, but Troop senses in him another victim of abuse and, in spite of Calvin’s lack of education or any other apparent redeeming quality, a kindred soul. Instead of enjoying the bout of sweaty sex he’d imagined, Troop finds himself simply cuddling the young man, and then attending his pathetic birthday party. When Calvin disappears, Troop sets off on the ill-conceived sleuthing mission that comprises the remainder of his Los Angeles adventure, which is at first hilarious, but finally tragic and unanticipated in ways that resonate with Troop on a deeply personal level.
Burnett is a dazzling stylist, and the astonishing verbal agility with which he informs Troop’s first-person narrative is one of the novel’s great pleasures. Troop’s voice in the previous volumes carried echoes of Waugh and Capote. Here, there are suggestions of S.J. Perelman’s witty logophilia, especially as found in his many pieces devoted to life’s comic mortifications and the dangers of Hollywood’s siren song. Burnett (through Troop’s jaundiced eyes) is precise and inventive in his observations, from pudendal (“I looked down and saw that, through a gap in my fuzzy robe, my privates dangled like fruit bats”; “Her cut-off denims were tiny. A tuft of pubic hair clawed out from one side like the hand of a buried miner”) to those surrounding Troop’s abortive attempt at a Hollywood career (“If the French have taught us anything … besides the value of rich sauces on rotten meat, it’s the upside of surrender”) to his horrified astonishment at Los Angeles traffic (“It was a Saturday afternoon, for heaven’s sake and we were heading away from the metropolis not toward it! Surely this was the greatest urban exodus since the epic flight of the Jews from Brooklyn to Long Island”).
In the end, as with its predecessors, Death by Sunshine is a showcase for the irrepressible Troop, full of naughty humor, absurd misadventures, and playful allusions to everyone from Laurence Sterne to Henry James. But the story has real depth as well, in the end serving as a moving, tragicomic meditation on how being open to the possibility of love can redeem even the worst humiliations and failures.