Everybody Smokes in Hell
by John Ridley
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
240 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Worse Than Losers
Reviewed by Frederick Zackel
The title is terrific, the cover's a grabber, but sadly, Everybody Smokes in Hell is a violent, empty book filled with characters few readers will root for, empathize with or, ultimately, give a damn about. By the time you reach the denouement in a Las Vegas motel, expect to feel as barren and perplexed as this novel's main character, Paris Scott.
Scott is a dimwitted loser from the git-go. A failed scriptwriter in Hollywood (a wearisome cliché, if there ever was one), the only job he can find -- or thrive at -- in 1990s Los Angeles is that of a convenience store clerk. At this point -- page 4 -- the reader still has interest and hope. After all, convenience store clerk is the most dangerous occupation in America, and author John Ridley has made a name for himself with two noir thrillers, Stray Dogs and Love Is a Racket, the latter of which also featured a wannabe scriptwriter. (Ridley adapted Stray Dogs into the 1997 box-office sluggard U-Turn, which was directed by Oliver Stone and starred Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez.)
However, the shallowness of Ridley's vision for this novel is clear from the first plot turn. Going off-duty one harrowing night, Paris Scott discovers a "Filthy White Guy," "smacked up on something" and propped against his car in the convenience store parking lot. FWG, for short, had earlier precipitated a minor disaster (involving $8 worth of frozen burritos in an overstuffed microwave oven) inside the store. Now he's "one-half passed out," his "pockets swollen with cash." While Paris would like to drive off and forget him, he realizes that FWG "was no better than bleeding brill waiting for sharks to pick up the scent." The man clearly needs help.
Altruistic assistance hardly seems up Paris' alley, as Ridley characterizes him:
Paris wasn't a particularly good person, and that was by his own figuring. It's not like he hung around soup kitchens doling out freebies, or gave a damn when dykes were outside Mayfair Market in WeHo collecting money for the AIDS Walk, but he was one of those "There but for the grace of God" guys; one of those guys that thought if you went out of your way to ignore somebody else's bad shit then that same bad shit was liable to boomerang around and smack you in the head at some point. So, from time to time, Paris found himself doing things that weren't really in his heart, but were just a way, like a gambler's ritual, of keeping more trouble out of his already troubled existence.
Paris drives the Filthy White Guy home -- to a mansion near "the west gate of Bel Air." The FWG turns out to be Ian Jermaine, rock star and lead singer for a musically stagnant but filthy-rich grunge band called Will of Instinct. It seems he'd wanted those convenience store burritos as part of his Last Supper. He's just turned 25 and has decided to commit suicide. As he tells Paris, "I'm taking my shit to the ooother level," adding, "The bigger I die, the larger I live, and I'm about to blowuptuate more than anybody ever knew how." Jermaine is also planning to leave behind a unique and immensely valuable last will and testament: a DAT player containing a tape of a dozen-odd brand-new compositions that will be worth millions in the recording business.
It's here that Ridley's narrative train starts to jump the tracks. Jermaine botches his suicide. He puts "the barrel of a shotgun butt-up against his chin" -- but the gun doesn't fire the first time. In his frustration, he swings the shotgun around. This time both barrels go off, Jermaine's right foot becomes "a shredded pulp of knotted bone and blood-sloshing flesh," and in his agony, the pathetic singer falls from his deck overlooking L.A. Jermaine lands on "the bags of soft, moist fertilizer the landscapers had piled beneath the balcony." Had he not opened his mouth to scream, Ridley writes, Jermaine might have been saved. "Instead the impact forced the fertilizer down his throat, into his lungs, bloating and choking them with manure."
Meanwhile, Paris the Loser sees his chance and steals Jermaine's DAT player. He then decides that Jermaine's recording company should be happy to pay a hefty ransom for his musical legacy. So he stashes the singer's tape inside a duffel bag under "his futon with a busted wood frame."
Cut now to a second narrative thread, starring Buddy, Paris' roommate. Buddy has dreams of glory, most of them, unfortunately, centered around his gun-happy gangsta friend Alfonso ("Alf") and their plans to steal a brick of heroin from "a doped-up addict who deals on the side. Small time, but enough to start us on easy street." Of course, this theft goes haywire: Alfonso kills two men, is fatally wounded and bleeds to death in the back seat of Buddy's car. After exhausting his anger at the situation with a few well-placed kicks to his friend's corpse ("The carcass resonated spastically at the end of each blow"), Buddy realizes he can't carry the heroin around on his person -- he needs to hide it. Fast. And what's the most unlikely spot he can think of? In a duffel bag under his roommate's "futon with a busted wood frame."
Yep, same futon.
The rest of Everybody Smokes in Hell finds one person or another trying to make a grab for the goodies under Paris Scott's bed -- all of them ready to kill for their quarry. This includes Chad Bayless, Ian Jermaine's agent, who is not only so shallow you couldn't get your big toe wet on him, but also a closet cokehead and an embezzler on the brink of being caught. His principal competition is drug lord Daymond Evans, who lives in a Baldwin Hills mansion overlooking "all the suckers who didn't make it -- couldn't make it." Both Bayless and Evans send out a pair of henchman to find, respectively, Jermaine's tape and Buddy's heroin, none of them realizing that they're bound for the very same destination. Eventually this game will add yet another player: Brice, a blonde bombshell of a hit woman, who as a young girl taught herself everything she needed to know about killing by stoning her own dog to death and now has trouble saying the word "love."
The author calls Everybody Smokes in Hell his version of a Preston Sturgis screwball comedy. The story, he has explained, began as a screenplay, but when "nobody bought the script," Ridley "revisited" Smokes as a novel.
His understanding of classic screwball comedies, though, seems severely lacking. Those old movies were more than fast-paced stories of mistaken identities and misplaced luggage. They were comedies of manners that exploited the foolish antics of the idle rich by comparing and contrasting their behavior against traditional American values. More importantly, they were social commentaries about sex and courtship. Differences in social class were run through emotional wringers, and the romance that endured to the end showed how traditional values were upheld. The finest such film, Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), added middle-class values (i.e., Clark Gable's brilliant role as reporter) to the foibles of the rich (Claudette Colbert as runaway heiress) and, voila! -- it became the first movie ever to win all five major Oscars (best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best screenplay).
By contrast, Smokes offers no redemption to its major or minor characters. These people, Ridley would have us believe, are romantics who have been screwed once too often. But then the author himself sneers at them. He doesn't love them, doesn't caress them, and he treats them like pieces of blood-warm garbage who deserve to die.
His "hero," Paris Scott, is "too old to be a slacker and too young to be a bum," according to his ex-girlfriend Kaila. Later, while on the run from all the bad guys and trapped without money in a Barstow, California, truck stop, Paris calls his parents for help, but they turn him down flat without listening to his story. He is still too self-absorbed to really grasp his own emptiness. "[T]he only time he ever really, really needed their help," Ridley writes, "the last time he would need it, and here Mom and Pop were giving him the brush-off same as they would any of the cracked-up beggars who accessorized the off-ramps of L.A."
The best you can say about the rest of Ridley's drifters and grifters is that they are rudderless people. In his hands, they are worse than losers. They are a valueless subspecies of humanity, merely obstacles to be gone around and forgotten.
I suppose the critics who call Ridley's work "reminiscent of [Raymond] Chandler and [Jim] Thompson" are referring to Ridley setting his stories in Los Angeles (as in Chandler's case) and anchoring them -- as Thompson did -- around amoral grifters. However, Ridley never develops those elements sufficiently to justify such comparisons. Unlike Chandler, especially, Ridley has no moral outrage in his quiverful of arrows. What he does seem to have is resentment mixed with envy, as evidenced by this passage:
That was the problem: this town itself. This fucking town, seeming fertile for accomplishment yet inimical to success. Hollywood and her tramp sisters fame and fortune were nothing but a bunch of whore seducers. With a smile and a wink and a wiggle of the ass they shanghaied you over to some dark corner where their brothers, the twin goons despair and defeat, waited to come at you bearing all the pleasantries of a back-alley abortion. That's when you got what the town really had waiting for you: the pounding of a lifetime just for thinking you could get a little of what the city had to offer.
Everybody Smokes in Hell boils down to a rerun of Achilles smearing the battlefield in front of Troy with his enemy Hector's entrails. We don't see the scenes that followed Achilles' desecration. We don't see the hero's redemption. | January 2000
FREDERICK ZACKEL is a contributing editor of January Magazine.