Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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Los Angeles Diaries

A memoir by James Brown

Perennial Books

Paper, 240 pages, $12.95

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    The suicide deaths of his two siblings are among the many morbid milestones referenced by novelist James Brown in his memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries. From formative years in one of those households where kids and parents yell, slam doors and stonewall one another; to a rickety marriage and a failed experiment in fatherhood, it’s a miasma of emotional upheaval fueled by (you guessed it) addiction.
    I suppose we have Frank McCort to thank or blame for the recent spate of twelve-step confessionals. His Angela’s Ashes was (eighty-) proof positive of a paying audience for deadpan diatribes about self-medication and its sado-masochistic fallout. Other books by McCort’s brother, Malachy (A Monk Swimming) and journalist Pete Hamill (A Drinking Life) mercilessly flogged the dog that bit them. Oh for the days when Hermann Hesse molded such gloomy introspection into high art.
    The once humble, noble and tranquil sobriety program initiated by Alcoholic’s Anonymous in the 1930’s—when members restricted their disturbing rants to the ears of sponsors—mutated over the years into an ego-gratifying showmanship by pricey drug and alcohol rehabs. You’d think that enduring the wrath an inebriated malcontent is bad enough, but ostensibly normal family members are now asked to participate in “after care” where the ex-drunk or addict gets to rehash seamy horror stories until the insurance is tapped out. Once the drink is down and the drugs are history, those closet doors are ripped down the skeletons inside are rattled…loudly. I assume that if family members are unavailable or unwilling to weather the bile, books like these are written instead.
    To be fair, James Brown’s Los Angeles Diaries is a far faster (and less embroidered) read than the McCort and Hamill books. While he maintains his deadlock stare into the abyss (rehabs and psychotropic medications influence their clients to appear impassive), Brown bounces situations around in a nonlinear fashion, that frayed gimmick to imply a meandering existence. To this reader it only made things occasionally confusing—which may have been the intent. (Recovery can be a minefield of unsubtle nuance.)
    Brown artfully renders the eating of shit and systematic obliteration of one’s principles when mollifying The Suits in Hollywood. His novels were once optioned for the movies, dark story concepts borne by depression and not easily translated to the screen. After a run of aborted adaptations, he finds himself rolling out of a studio parking lot after waiting for the police to quell a sniper, a tram driver who lost his mind and arbitrarily opened fire:

    Soon I’m back in my car on the San Bernardino Freeway, heading home. There shouldn’t be much traffic now, it’s just half-past twelve, but you can’t predict when there will be a wreck. Ahead the exhaust from hundreds of cars wavers in the air, liquidlike, and no one is going anywhere. I roll down my window. I light a cigarette and think about the tram driver. He could be a screenwriter. Or better yet an actor. I would bet on it, and his desperation to make it has probably been building for years. Maybe his wife or girlfriend recently left him. Maybe he’s drinking too much and can’t stop. Each day his disillusionment grows, each day he finds less reason to care. Eventually his frustration turns to anger, the anger to rage, and when he loses his job, a shitty job he never even liked, something inside finally snaps. I can understand that. I can even sympathize.

    Outside of another anecdote worthy of Luis Buñuel, concerning the effort to assuage his wife’s animosity by presenting her with an ever-growing pet pig, there’s relatively little humor here—twisted or otherwise—which may make the trek too grim for some. The liberal-minded might find it weirdly compelling, more than two hundred pages of our narrator waiting for the other shoe to drop.
    While I’d never heard of novelist James Brown before, his brother Barry was once a burgeoning movie star. He started out as a writer, contributing articles on forgotten horror actors with macabre lives (acromegalic Rondo Hatton; addict Bela Lugosi) to the magazine Castle of Frankenstein, and a chapter about the actress Katherine Victor to the book Scream Queens (New York: Collier, 1978). After a string of bit parts and a lot of work in television, Barry was second-billed to Jeff Bridges in Robert Benton’s underrated and overlooked Bad Company, followed by the male lead in Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller. Although hindsight allows us to snicker over that last one, at the time the director was very hot and Barry was poised for stardom. But Daisy Miller took a beating, and Barry slid back into secondary roles in b-movies before committing suicide. Their sister Marilyn would take her life several years later.
    No one should be made to suffer this heartbreak and tragedy, especially after a precarious childhood that had already left permanent scars. But James Brown never shares the joy of the experience of having his early novels published, nor does he relate the love once felt for his first wife and children. His rundown tone in The Los Angeles Diaries barely conceals self-pity, a sense of victimization and the quixotic search for closure—as if such a beast ever existed.