A Brit in Los Angeles, Deep in Debt

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Death by Lesiure: A Cautionary Tale
By Chris Ayres
300 pages; Grove Press

The Gist:

Upon his return from a brief stint as a correspondent in Iraq (recounted in his previous book, War Reporting for Cowards), British journalist Chris Ayres takes up a job as a Hollywood correspondent for the London Times. There, he witnesses a less violent, but equally disturbing, scene — the rapacious, debt-funded and seemingly insatiable spending habits of upwardly mobile West Coast Americans. Assigned to cover this world, he is compelled to emulate it, purchasing gargantuan televisions, unnecessary beauty treatments, pricey meals, and shady real estate. With dry British wit, he skewers American greed, L.A. life, and his own endless romantic foibles. (Read "Living in a World with Less Credit.")

Highlight Reel:

1. On age and money in Los Angeles: "Sally Worthington Hayes is one of those L.A. women who slip into an alternative dimension sometime after their fortieth birthday. It works the same way with men in this city. You think you're talking to a college student, what with his rock 'n' roll T-shirt, his skateboard, his bong collection, and his extensive knowledge of low-fi British indie music, then you find out he's fifty-eight, with six kids and three percent of Google. What do these people do to themselves?...When I tell people my age in L.A., they can't believe it. But you look so much older, they try hard not to say."

2. On the madness of the former real-estate bubble: "Can Flip's mortgage really be possible? Even if it is (and it can't be), I doubt it can be legal. A million dollars with no down payment, for two grand a month? It's an insult to money — an insult to the value of money. No wonder the L.A. real estate market has a problem with hyperinflation: the mortgage industry is printing its own banknotes...All I know is this: there is only one conservative, sensible, educated strategy when it comes to home ownership in L.A.. I must buy immediately, while I can still make an easy profit."

3. On how debt can lead you into ridiculous purchases: "My gym visits are now followed by eighty-dollar tennis lessons; my Dr. Bingblatz sessions are now followed by one-hundred dollar facial sessions, administered by a masked woman with a steam wand and a tweezer, who removes my blackheads one by one...I'm impressed that this service even exists. How do these leisure economy capitalists do it? How do they calculate the exact moment at which people are suddenly prepared to pay a hundred dollars for an hourlong blackhead-squeezing session?"

The Lowdown:

"My plan was to max out on leisure, binge on self-gratification until I could take it no more," writes Ayres in his comic satire, the satire part of which is more satisfying than the comic. As a portrait of pre-recession, debt-financed, image-obsessed Los Angeles, Death By Leisure is spot-on in its details, though the British writer succeeds in making the city sound like the worst place in America, full of status-obsessed grifters like himself. Whether it's sneaking into Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch or finagling his way into a studio exec bash, Ayres simultaneously spits on and revels in the all-consuming shallowness of his time and place: gargantuan SUV's, gated communities, multi-million dollar homes and hot-bodied ladies.

Yet, too much of Leisure is taken up by Ayres' romantic disasters, surely mortifying to experience yet so flat on the page. And by the fifth time he leaves us on a "cliffhanger," only to resolve the situation two pages later, it's clear that his concept of dramatic tension is a flawed one. But Ayres succeeds best in his doubting moments of financial self-reflection — the kind that everyone seems to be undergoing these days. Is it wise to put everything on my credit cards? Do I really need this caviar face treatment? Or, as Ayres writes, "does anyone my age have any money? Or are my financial issues generational in nature?" A hundred pages later, he will move in with a woman and score a mortgage from a little bank called IndyMac, which would eventually go on to become the second-largest bank failure in history. Somehow, Ayres knew the fall was coming and kept going anyway. So did we.

The Verdict: Skim

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