John Schulian, who had a cup of coffee at the Philadelphia Daily News in the mid-’80s, went on to a heralded sportswriting career in Chicago, moved to California to create Xena: Warrior Princess, and was given the 2016 PEN / ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting, has published his first novel, A Better Goodbye, at the age of 71.
The book might be typified as “nouveau noir,” a seething portrait of the dirty underbelly of that black magical dreamscape known as Los Angeles. A Better Goodbye tracks the travails of four characters as they stumble and slouch toward a confrontation from which no one escapes unscathed.
Jenny Yee is a Korean-American hand whore bouncing between massage jobs that consist mostly of masturbating the needy clients who are drawn from every stratum of Los Angeles life. Orphaned at 16 and left to fend for herself, she nonetheless is a few cuts above her vacuous coworkers, attending community college when she is financially able, and hooked on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Jenny is a flickering light in what is mainly a tale of darkness and death. Schulian’s worldview in A Better Goodbye is decidedly dismal.
Nick Pafko is the haunted sort-of-hero, a former boxer who left the ring after killing an opponent and now finds himself the bouncer in a “jack shack” where Jenny is the star performer, catering to the endless string of clients known as ”rice chasers” who think a handjob from an Asian woman will make their unbleachable blues go away. Scott Crandall is Jenny and Nick’s bossman, a faded barely-B leading man with a growing belly whose usual situation is between a rock and a hard place. He gives new meaning to the word “creep.”
(Schulian’s background as a sportswriter is evident in his choice of the surnames Pafko and Crandall. He verified in an email that the old Chicago Cubs outfielder Andy Pafko came to mind when he needed an ethnic name, and that Del Crandall was a catcher with the Braves.)
A monster from childhood
The fourth main character in A Better Goodbye is Onus DuPree Jr., who is almost unbelievably evil. His father, once an all-star outfielder with the Dodgers and now a fat and hopeless drunk, pegged his son as a “monster” from childhood. The younger DuPree’s every waking moment, it would seem, is spent planning and executing various kinds of mayhem. A black dude with jailhouse credentials, violence is his answer to almost any situation until Nick backs him down in a confrontation at the jack shack over Jenny. Good move for Jenny, bad move for Nick, as it turns out.
Schulian’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Los Angeles demimonde — from the dirty towels in the trick pads to the brutality of illicit dog-fighting — brings to mind that of James Ellroy, another chronicler of down and dirty L.A. But while Ellroy operates on a grander scale of police, politics, and power, Schulian works small and in close, like a fighter going to the body. His language is more fluid than Ellroy’s telegraphic style as well, although his dialogue is just as real and sharp as Ellroy’s. They both have perpetual ears to the ground and the talent to take the inside language of their chosen turf of Los Angeles and make it part of the weather of the times.
When the gunsmoke clears, A Better Goodbye is as gritty — that overworked description — as skid marks on asphalt, a long, slow dive into the pool of dissolution from which few emerge intact. No happy endings here— rather, an affirmation of the old saw that no good deed goes unpunished.
The title is from these lines of a Patty Griffin song that Schulian quotes as an intro: “And I wonder where you are / And if the pain ends when you die / And I wonder if there was / Some better way to say goodbye.”
Hope they let Schulian write the screenplay.