New York in the summer, with its viscous air and rushing crowds, is so unpleasant that when you finally make it to the beach, you need to make the most of it. So why waste time with so-so beach books? Summer reading doesn’t have to be dumbed down or take place in an exotic locale. But it does have to be fast-paced, juicy, and yank you into a fictional world so alluring that, before you know it, you are a few more shades of brown, the sun is set, and you’ve completely forgotten about your sticky Midtown office.
I tested these beach books in the backyard of a college house, lying on a scrap of a towel and wearing a cheesy Joyce Leslie swimsuit. If these literary treats can set the mood under those half-hearted conditions, they’ll more than do the job at Jones Beach.
To New Yorkers, South Florida and California bring to mind never-ending summers of surf, silicone, and succulent tropical neons. Tim Dorsey confirms this cartoonish parody through his latest installment in the ongoing adventures of charming serial killer Serge and his forever-stoned accomplice, Coleman. In The Big Bamboo (William Morrow, 2006), Serge, the poster child for brash Florida pride, bemoans the Sunshine State’s place in movie history: “Why should California get all the glory?” he protests. Fueled by a passion for such Florida celluloid as Ace Ventura and Follow That Dream, he flies to Hollywood to fulfill his grandfather’s mysterious dying wish, recounted in a letter whose contents Dorsey keeps from us until the book’s climax.
But the book doesn’t just detail Serge’s ordeal—it also follows Ford and Marc, two sincere Midwesterners stumbling into Hollywood to find their fortune, and smarmy studio heads Ian and Mel Glick, unflinching twin liars who screw over everyone they come across. Then there are the angry Alabama mafiosos, the crazed Russian director, and a scandal luscious enough to be any paparazzo’s wet dream. The riffs and spats and bizarre monologues of all these characters surround the supposed murder of a Tinseltown It-girl who has been mysteriously abducted in plain view in L.A.
Already confused? I feel you. The Big Bamboo is the type of tale that at first bewilders but promptly mesmerizes, a Rubik’s cube of a book but with better odds of ultimate satisfaction. The voice of The Big Bamboo, like Hollywood itself, is kitschy and merciless, with so much punchy dialogue that it reads like a smart-ass twenty-something’s screenplay. Especially hilarious are the Glick brothers’ staccato exchanges, inflamed by coke toots between conference calls, as they casually sic their lawyers onto unsuspecting innocents. The scenery is varied and surprising: one minute we’re hanging on Hollywood Boulevard or in Fort Lauderdale, and the next Dorsey is flashing back to middle-of-nowhere Ohio and Japan. Even the Playboy Mansion makes a cameo appearance. Mostly, this book will satisfy a summer craving for a show-biz trash-talk session. Dorsey’s latest baby is a vacation in every sense of the word—from the 9-to-5 grind, from any hint of cold winter, and from a world in which robberies and kidnappings aren’t quite so endearing.
But even New York can serve as an escape for the summer reader. Andy Greenwald’s Miss Misery (Simon Entertainment, 2005) gets inside the head of David Gould, a self-deprecating music writer going through a pseudo-breakup and a disturbing case of self-induced writer’s block. He mopes around his sticky Brooklyn apartment, book deadline looming, hating life and ignoring phone messages. Greenwald’s semi-autobiographical first novel at once distances David from and equates him with New York emo-punk subculture, blurring the lines between reporter and participant. I was about to write off this book as a slightly less annoying High Fidelity when I hit the jarring plot twist around page 70: this guy has a doppelganger. What ensues is nothing short of brilliant urban satire, flinging us into David’s surrealistic nightmare of solving his (quite literal) identity crisis.
The book weaves through narrative, livejournal and blog entries, text messages, and IM conversations, a rhythm that provokes a strange mix of tenth-grade nostalgia (the uncanny shivers I only got when waiting for my crush to IM me back) and the distinct feeling that I am way behind the media-saturated times. The diary entries of David’s online infatuation, Miss Misery, named after an Elliot Smith song, alternate with 17-year-old Ashleigh’s querulous instant messages about her Mormon family in Salt Lake City. Through it all, Greenwald’s grumbling prose has the sincerity of a teen blogger, yet the droll humor of an alt-weekly cultural critic.
Surprisingly, it’s a loveable combination. Despite his countless nods to obscure hipster bands, we’re on David’s side: he is recognizable, and so is the muggy city summer the narrator deftly describes. The greatest parts of this book are its fervid descriptions of New York itself. Amidst the delirious, almost dreamlike accounts of parties at unmarked downtown bars spinning New Order, or on the sweltering roofs of LES apartment buildings, there are also earnest moments of routine subway rides, Park Slope gentrification, and the grimy verve that is Coney Island. Equally skillful is Greenwald’s account of sprawling Utah—don’t even ask how he gets there—when David is forced to act like an adult with an unexpected visitor. Until the end, David Gould’s ball-busting journey through his introspective little life kept my fingers turning the pages, even as I intermittently reapplied my Banana Boat oil.
Paradise Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) also assembles a portrait of our beloved New York, but it is hardly the spoofy, too-cool-for-school scenester wonderland that Greenwald presents. Jorge Franco’s protagonist is Marlon Cruz, who has accompanied his ambitious girlfriend from Medellín, Colombia to the incomprehensible, multilingual bustle of Jackson Heights. Losing his lover on his first night in New York, Marlon desperately tries to keep his head above water in the dizzying whirlpool of Queens. He sinks to unimaginable lows as he navigates the city’s “speed and seduction,” plodding along with literally nothing in his pocket. We meander with Marlon through his filthy rented room, his visit to a dismal, hole-in-the-wall strip club, and his reveries about frustrated arousal and class inequality back in Colombia. The most vivid parts of the novel are Marlon’s sporadic rundowns of his border-crossing, an endless odyssey fraught with fear, elation, and mundane betrayal.
Yet not one page of the book is depressing; instead it is hopeful and anticipatory, leaving us on the edge of our seat (or towel) as Marlon pieces together revelations about his new neighborhood, the location of his girlfriend, Reina, and what he’s really doing with the rest of his life. His gritty descriptions of New York—“its millions of inhabitants…its tons of garbage; its time and energy; the river of shit in its drainpipes; the madness and the blood”—come off as curiously positive, exhilarating even, and make his personal triumphs seem all the more thrilling. Laced with breathless sexual energy every few chapters, Marlon’s episodic story is more quixotic than pitiful, sometimes funny and mostly surprising, especially at the end. It keeps your eyes glued to the page, but if you must stop to pop open that limey Corona, luckily the chapters are brief and frequent.
Whether dreaming of the tropics or re-imagining your own city, these books should keep you occupied during a precious week-long getaway—or at least during that mini-vacation of an air-conditioned subway ride to work.
Aronowitz is a 25-year-old journalist and cultural critic.