Dreams can often turn into nightmares. And dreams in Hollywood are a special kind, as are the nightmares that can follow. One day you’re getting ready to audition for a role in a movie. You’re full of hope, depending of course on how much time you’ve spent among the crowd of overly aesthetic phonies. Then, in the same afternoon, you discover there’s a dead body in your car trunk. This is what happens to an aspiring starlet, Vincenza Morgan, one of the protagonists of Jonathan Leaf’s debut novel, City of Angles.
Bathed in Hollywood and Los Angeles culture in which unspoken crimes and movies are inextricably connected, City of Angles has a fascinating cast of characters. The book itself is in a way a movie, and that’s not surprising given the fact that Leaf is an acclaimed playwright with experience in Hollywood. It also exhibits a careful and linear unfolding of events. Leaf is not interested in impressing his readers with virtuosic writing, although his talent is on full display. Rather, we witness a novel that embraces the tradition of noirs and social critiques we often find in writers as diverse as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Evelyn Waugh, Carl Hiassen, and Iris Murdoch. This is not an exercise in deconstructive postmodernism that alienates the reader. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The reader is invited to be an impartial observer but also a voyeur of the lives of the rich and the famous, the bold and the beautiful, and the dazed and confused.
Vincenza is a sympathetic character, to a certain extent. She just wants to mind her own business and get as many good roles as she can, but instead gets embroiled in murder. Of course, there’s no such thing as minding your own business in Hollywood. Everyone is subtly connected, Leaf implies. And despite wanting to evade Hollywood corruption, Vincenza nevertheless does what is necessary to get ahead. She changes her name, augments her breasts, and flaunts her body. Yet there’s more to her than this. And more to her story. First off, she can’t trust anyone, including Sara, the co-producer of an indie film that’s supposed to put Vincenza on a bigger and more artistic map. And can she trust Ray Chalmers, a detective investigating the murder in which Vincenza is now implicated?
Then there’s Billy Rosenberg, a screenwriter who “sometimes thought that if there were talent for bad timing, he had it.” Add David Clarkson, a man who is integral to the Church of Life, a cult of sorts with its own hierarchy. Clarkson is a “fixer,” and Vincenza needs fixing because of what happened to Tom Selva, the poor corpse in Vincenza’s trunk, who was both a successful actor and Vincenza’s now-former lover. There’s a quiet countenance to Clarkson, and as Leaf writes, “Los Angeles is a place where everyone is nice, often aggressively so.” But where does niceness end and literal aggression begin?
Leaf’s fictional narrative is also a social commentary on the decadence of Hollywood, one that explores Vincenza’s primal fear that she will be blamed for Selva’s murder. One gets a feeling that it’s not just a fear of being charged and arrested for a crime she didn’t commit, but whether this controversy will hurt her career. As much as she remains an outsider, Vincenza has imbibed Hollywood culture in order to exist.
In one scene, Vincenza is being followed by what appear to be members of the Church of Life. In an effort to avoid her stalkers, she latches on to a married couple—innocently named Gary and Fran—who appear to be safe and harmless. They’re gentle and soft spoken. (One might imagine Gary as Orson Bean in Spike Jonze’s 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.) Gary speaks in calm tones: “I’m glad you came up with us Vincenza.… My wife and I like to make new friends. We particularly like making friends with people in the industry.” Suddenly, Vincenza is stuck between two absurd situations. What exactly do Gary and Fran have in mind? Did she just walk into a scene from Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers sans her own lover? Do Gary and Fran want to tie her up and “do” things to her? Is that the lesser of two evils?
And who killed Tom Selva and why? Could the Church of Life in any way be involved? Leaf brilliantly weaves in cultural and religious references to well-known institutions that have taken root in Hollywood. There is the “Supreme Pilot,” other lesser leaders of the Church, and “EMEs, or enemies of man’s emergence.” It doesn’t take much to guess Leaf’s gentle suggestions as to the real-life referent, yet he never resorts to clumsy obviousness.
The Church has a lot of power, as is witnessed through the lives of Vincenza, who was (supposedly) cleansed of her painful past involving a neglectful mother and abusive stepfather, and Tom Selva, our unfortunate victim. Selva was beautiful and desired by many, and like many others, “he did as the Church instructed him. It had been explained to him that the future society on the new Eden required artists and poets, creative figures like himself. It had also been pointed out that he served the Church.… He was a shining example of what the Church represented.… His talent and beauty were avatars of what mankind would be after the interplanetary journey.” It’s too bad that Selva’s own galactic trip ended in the car trunk of a former lover.
Throughout the novel, Leaf evokes the mystery and romance of the Golden Age of Hollywood. For one, Vincenza loves old black-and-white movies. Every movie buff knows the allure of Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Barbara Stanwyck’s erotic iciness in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and even Gene Tierney’s more innocent eroticism in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).
New Hollywood doesn’t seem to care about the Old, however. As Leaf writes, “Among the great surprises that had awaited her [Vincenza] in Hollywood was the discovery of how few people knew or cared about old films. It baffled her. Often she had asked herself how other actresses could arrive in the city with such fervent yearning for success but not be inspired by their example, nor even by their outfits.”
The reality is usually grimmer and more boring than the fantasy. The wide-eyed starlet (think Naomi Watts in David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive) perhaps still exists in real life, but is she aware of the aesthetics of the past? Do they hold any meaning for the present, or the future?
To write a neo-noir is not an easy task. We tend to slip into nostalgia and admiration that’s often grounded in exotic romance. This is due in part to the loss of masculinity, thrust, and eros in our society today. We want to see Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette in some L.A. dive or Robert Mitchum’s glorious indifference and unbearably attractive darkness. We want to experience life again.
Leaf, however, does not give in to such nostalgia. City of Angles draws from the springs of many traditional sources, but they’re never pasted together awkwardly. There’s a sense of authenticity and honesty in Leaf’s writing. Unlike most characters in his book, Leaf is not trying to be anybody other than himself.
The author has accomplished something that the literature and mystery world has been missing for a long time. Our society, so overwhelmed with ideology and wokeness, has forgotten how to have fun, experience joy and humor. Leaf has not only brought out the varied aspects of what it means to be human—the contradictions and delusions, as well as the joys—but has also written a subtle social commentary on the absurdity, and sadness, of the present times.