Shining City
Seth Greenland
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Buy *Shining City* by Seth Greenland online

Shining City
Seth Greenland
Bloomsbury USA
320 pages
June 2009
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In this novel that heavily skewers the American dream, author Seth Greenland creates a darkly humorous tale of love, money and moral ambiguity that stretches across the vast, sun-baked suburbs of Los Angeles and into the dark night of the city’s criminal underworld.

A man of fierce intellect, Marcus Ripps’ story begins in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Van Nuys, “a gamey corner of the San Fernando Valley” where he lives with his loving wife, Jan, their son, Nathan, and Jan’s mother, Lenore, who has recently come to live with the family because of her ailing health.

When Marcus isn’t dipping into age-old philosophy texts to focus his mind, he’s trying desperately to vent his will and achieve a modicum of mediocrity. When his job as production manager for Wazoo, a toy manufacturing business, goes belly-up, little does Marcus know that he is about to be about to be sucked into the maelstrom of global progress. Turning down a lucrative offer from his boss, Room Primus (the God of Unbridled money), to manage the company in China, Marcus tumbles into the hard realities of unemployed life.

Jan is no help. Her alternative clothing boutique, Ripcord, is in financial trouble, its constant mercantile demands just not providing the creative outlet that Jan craves. She’s also having trouble with her best friend and business partner, Plum, who decides she wants to have a baby to add to a piece of her video art.

These troubles seem to melt away when Marcus discovers he has inherited from his brother, Julian, a Melrose Avenue dry-cleaning business called Shining City. But when Marcus discovers that the business is in reality an underground escort agency, he’s thrust into a new world of ethical uncertainty when he decides to take over the service and run it as a new-age management service, offering pension plans and health benefits for the employees.

With the pounding heat of a Los Angeles summer acting as a fiery backdrop, Marcus begins his operation, entering into a world of whores and pimps, attacking his newfound career with unbridled optimism and finding himself becoming a “miscreant and a procurer of human flesh."

Although Marcus can’t begin to divine Julian’s intentions, he remains grateful for what his brother has done and makes plans for his girls “to be treated as individuals and with dignity.“ Plus he gets to pay off his crippling debts, with enough money left to pay for Nathan’s tuition at Winthrop Hall, a prestigious private school that’s a hothouse of ambition and over-achievement.

In this true Los Angeles story, author Seth Greenland gradually introduces us to a funny mélange of characters as Marcus begins his tumultuous journey into the L.A. flesh trade. There’s Amstel, a blond beauty from Eastern Europe, whose past work as a prostitute comes back to haunt Marcus in unexpected ways, and Kostya, who served as a driver, personal assistant, and general factotum for Julian and who ends up helping Marcus shoulder much of the day-to-day operation of the business.

Filled with exuberant plot twists, Marcus’s foray into the freaky skin trade proves to be a consummate adventure, part nonsense but also part ironic examination on the nature of sex, morality and American capitalism. The Ripps prove to be quite naïve by nature, not thinking that their newfound profession may somehow be connected to the criminal underworld, where kinky clients can be alive one moment and dead the next, and where rival pimps and their girls sometimes have difficulty separating reality from fantasy.

Toss in Plum, who becomes a self-empowered dominatrix, a sex toy in the form of a vibrating egg with a chip in it, and a trip by Marcus and Jan to dump the body of a client in the Los Angeles forest, and Marcus indeed gets to play downright dirty in one of the most entertaining and irreverently funny books of the year.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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