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Posted July 28, 2014
Joe Wambaugh is best known for his brutally honest early works centered on the LAPD -- The Blue Knight, The New Centurions and some of his other 1970s novels. This isn't one of those. More's the pity.
Winston Farlowe, the protagonist, is drinking his disability pension after being cut loose from the Newport Beach PD after a line-of-service injury. Tess Binder, a Newport Beach serial trophy wife, tracks him down at the dive bar he haunts and winds him up in a relationship based equally on alcohol and sex, then tells him someone's trying to kill her. Naturally, he tries to fix the problem, and complications ensue.
The author is skilled at creating characters that feel all-too-human and act in ways you'd expect beings such as they would act. The dialog generally feels authentic except in one aspect. He captures the vibe of the wealthiest enclave in Orange County back at the end of the era when semi-normal people could still afford to live there (precariously). The crime-related plot is suitably devious though not particularly original (it's a variation on Double Indemnity).
However, the overall work is lazy and sloppy. The crime story is nowhere near the main plot; the first whisper of it doesn't appear until page 160 or so of the paperback. Vast numbers of pages are taken up by incidentals or repetition. This book could easily be a hundred pages shorter and would benefit greatly from the trim. The dialog fail happens repeatedly in Win's favorite bar; it descends into banter that's far too sharp and quick for real drunks to even attempt, much less pull off.
The two main characters embody the largest failings. The main plot involves watching Win repeatedly drink to vast excess, both alone and in the company of fellow hopeless alcoholics. The boozing is nonstop to the point of absurdity. An example: on the night of Win's first date with Tess, he downs upwards of twenty double vodkas as well as various other drinks (I finally lost track), but somehow he not only doesn't end up comatose or dead, he can still perform sexually. Win's created this problem for himself and is in deep denial about it, even though it's patently obvious to every other character around him. As a result, it's extremely difficult to muster any sympathy for Win or care much about his ultimate fate.
Similarly, Tess is a preening, entitled gold-digger who believes "injustice" is what happens when the third wealthy ex-husband refuses to breach the pre-nup and gives her the old Mercedes as part of the settlement. Her peers are no better. In fact, nearly all the female characters in this novel are either shrill harpies feeding on the entrails of their blameless mates, or ruthless predators stalking the rich men of Newport Beach, who are helpless prisoners of the whims of their own penises. It's hard to feel anything but contempt or disgust for Tess, no matter how much of a male-fantasy sex machine the author sets her up to be.
So with no viable main plot or relatable main characters, this is an exercise in the skilled creation of milieu (the only reason this got that second star). Whether that's worth 350 pages of your time is something you'll have to decide for yourself.
If you haven't encountered Wambaugh before, go back to his early works and see him at his peak. If you've read all the rest of his works and somehow skipped The Golden Orange, don't feel as though you've missed much. Move along, there's nothing much to see here.
Posted February 2, 2013
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