You know how they always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? In the case of A Better Goodbye (Tyrus Books), this is one instance in which you certainly could. The cover of John Schulian’s debut novel depicts a brilliant yellow and orange sunset over the dark and gritty cityscape of Los Angeles. It’s a perfectly fitting image, as it represents the murky lifestyle Schulian paints beneath the brilliant sparkle and glamour of the movie capital of the world.
It’s in this milieu, right on the fringes of tourist-friendly Hollywood, that we find Schulian’s unforgettable cast of down-and-out characters. There’s Nick Pafko, a former professional boxer haunted by a deadly confrontation in the ring; Jenny Yee, a Korean who sells sexual favors in a so-called massage parlor so she can pay her way through college; Scott Crandall, a washed-up B-movie actor and owner of said massage parlor, who is looking for one more chance to get to the top; and Onus Dupree, a sleazy, conniving “friend” of Scott’s who doesn’t care what it takes, or whom he hurts, to make a score.
Schulian gives each character their own needs and desires and flaws that humanize them. They’re not the sort of characters you’d want to associate with, but you can sympathize with their plight. And, at least in the case of Jenny and Nick, you can hope along with them that maybe, just maybe, their fortunes will change somehow for the better. When the two begin a romantic relationship, that hope pushes ever higher.
But this is a noir novel, above all else. It’s down and dirty, scathingly real and gritty as hell. Happy endings be damned. The lives of Schulian’s characters are irrevocably intertwined and destined to come crashing down in a bloody finale.
Schulian’s hard-edged storytelling gives an air of verisimilitude to his novel. A lifetime of reporting sports stories for publications like Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Oxford American, along with stints on iconic crime dramas such as Miami Vice and Wiseguy, clearly arm Schulian’s imagination and prose.
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