Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Bombshell Blonde

By Sam Jemielity

MARCH 9, 1998: 

Jen Banbury
(Little, Brown, 296 pages, $21.95)
On the back jacket of Jen Banbury's accomplished, neo-noir debut comic novel "Like a Hole in the Head," there's a dire burst of hype by punk-hack Legs McNeil that incorporates the deadly words "Generation X." What a disservice to this cheery, engaging page-turner. Banbury's heroine, part-time bookstore clerk Jill, is a witty, contemporary woman whose fresh narrative voice usually surpasses the increasingly cockamamie adventures that a purloined copy of a little-known Jack London volume propel her into. At its best, "Like a Hole in the Head" seems like the improbable issue of some daughter of Dorothy Parker and Carl Hiassen.

Gratifyingly, all the cultural references ring true in this sun-soaked comedy of terrors. Jill's voice captures the smell of the gloomy, dusty bookstores in unimproved L.A., books making the slow seep from language to sawdust; the self-importance of child stars lurching toward their thirties; the mild-mannered weirdness twisting through the cul-de-sacs of the Hollywood Hills; the industrial-strength weirdness of film sets and their supposedly most powerful participants; the sensation of driving drunk, sleep-deprived or otherwise swacked among L.A.'s zoomy arteries; even a pleasingly giddy sidetrip to Vegas.

Banbury's eyes are always wide-open. She's known for a play called "How Alex Looks When She's Hurt," and "Like a Hole in the Head" demonstrates a playwright's appreciation for shiny snips of overheard speech. As Jill gors fuzzy in her virtually sleepless three-day search for the missing book, you realize this Los Angeles is Banbury's very own, not Joan Didion's hotel-bar swank with palms and perennials shielding the privileged from daylong chaos, not Michael Tolkin's office suites filled with shushed, barely-contained dread; not Nathaniel West's vision of SoCal as the highest circle of apocalyptic geekery and freakishness. Jill's just a smart chick that circumstances call upon to play tough to save her hide; she's up to whatever lame come-ons, threatening dwarfs and inexpert gunplay may come her way. As you finish a racy page-turner like "Like a Hole in the Head," you can only hope the author will type faster, more. (Ray Pride)

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