Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hollywood Station

It's Crime Week (not really), so here's a review of Joseph Wambaugh's book that ran in the Herald a while back. Why this story hasn't been turned into a movie (Andrew Bergman? Ron Shelton?) is a mystery.

Cops and criminals collide on streets of Tinseltown
Characters are well drawn and compelling as Joseph Wambaugh returns to the LAPD.

published 12/19/06 in The Miami Herald

Hollywood Station. Joseph Wambaugh. Little, Brown & Company. 352 pages.

The miracle of art — even a piece that's minimally successful — involves a plausible imitation of life. Depending on the medium, sounds, scents, images and other cues cause the recipient's brain to believe that they are observing something real.

But human behavior and expression are rarely as entertaining and coherent as depicted in art. Anyone who has read a transcript of a conversation knows that ordinary mortals seldom if ever speak in ways that can be captured and coherently read by other humans. And like films, novels synthesize life and string selected moments together to simulate a narrative.

Joseph Wambaugh's latest police story, his first in a decade, begins with a dizzy dialogue that's later revealed as a piece of an ongoing colloquy between two surfer cops, identified only as Flotsam and Jetsam. Though mostly peripheral to the action, the pair provides additional comic beats in their interactions with the main players — of which there are quite a few.

Once past the joined-in-progress introduction, the text wends around to the rest of the cast, mostly humanly imperfect cops of varied heritage, age and social strata, and the meth-head ''tweakers,'' Russian and other eastern European criminals, and vagrants that comprise the not-so-good guys, plus Hollywood, itself a top-billed star of the show. Long past its golden days of glitz and glamour, the city is now just another crime-scarred urban locale, albeit one with residual magic and a mystique that still draws tourists and sightseers.

At the beginning, the reader, in frustration, may be searching for a plot, or at least a crime that's grand enough to warrant this freewheeling exposition. But once the initial confusion subsides, Wambaugh's art and craft combine to belay abandonment of the book, with characters so well drawn and compelling that even when they just pair off to meet for dinner, it's worth waiting to see what they order. And as it becomes apparent that wily Wambaugh offers not only a plot but also several tasty subplots, all worries subside.

Juggling the large troupe, which is not just ethnically diverse but also contains several flawed but full-blooded female cops and criminals, is no small feat. Wambaugh ensures that each player has several solid scenes with interesting dialog. Though the plot is hardly revolutionary, and the crimes are decidedly low tech, the rich cioppino of characters, conflicts and scenery makes for a highly entertaining experience.

Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, isn't skittish about presenting violence or its consequences, and there's enough grit and world-weary wisdom to satisfy all but the most hardcore noiriste. Throughout, his peerless craft makes everything appear easy and effortless, like it all really happened, and he just wrote up the story and turned it in to his publisher. There's even a satisfying and happy-ish ending, just like in real life.


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