A frequent contributor, Iowa Writers Workshop grad Dick Cummins, now retired from a teaching and business career, is writing again. His current project (ripped from the headlines, as they say) is co-authoring a novel based on the non-fiction book Angels Do Not Forget, a monograph by a former detective responsible for the arrest and conviction of many of the “Dago” Hell’s Angels chapter in Dick’s hometown San Diego.
One morning, listening to NPR, I heard Marion the Librarian (Nancy Pearl) recommend a “very funny and smart book,” a volume recently born-again after being out of print. It was The Diamond Lane (TDL) by Karen Karbo. Originally published in 1991 and reviewed by the Times as “…a tale to treasure” and “…amazing,” TDL was resuscitated last year by Hawthorne Rediscovery, an Oregon house dedicated to republishing quality writing.
The novel’s about the FitzHenry family of Los Angeles, especially sisters Mimi and Mouse. Early in the story Mimi, a year older, steals Mouse’s boyfriend Ivan, a young documentary filmmaking wannabe. This she accomplishes by accidently sunbathing nude by the pool while Mouse lugs around her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s heavy (pre-video) film canisters.
The story descends wonderfully from there as the sibling betrayed “Mousie Mouse”—penned as a very unmouse-like character—decamps for Africa. Still sore, she refuses to fly home for Mimi’s eventual wedding to Ivan, her nude sunbathing aficionado ex. For the next 16 years Mouse spends her days in The Heart of Darkness, producing hilariously titled documentary films, getting her own back, as the English say.
One of the great pleasures of Karbo’s never-a-dull-moment voice is the throw-away asides. Mouse wistfully discusses losing track of Gideon, a tribal teen from her screenwriting classes (yet) in Nairobi. He’s disappeared, (facetiously suspected of becoming a major studio head) along with his final project script, a masterpiece involving the Massai teenaged circumcision ceremony.
Mouse’s partner in documentary crime is Tony, a tall English ginger with freckles (and benefits, when they’re not too busy working). Finally, always the proper Brit, Tony feels obligated by intimacy and asks for Mouse’s hand in marriage.
“In the past four years Tony had proposed twice and it worried her that he kept asking…she thought getting married was something couples only resorted to after they ran out of other things to do.”
Later, the plot turns to marriage again after Mouse’s mother Shirl badgers her into taking the aisle with handsome Tony. This causes Tony to ask: “What happened to marriage as a prison without walls?” then wonder: “Even though Mouse insisted she loved him, he didn’t believe that a normal woman in love could resist a proposal of marriage…[which] left him with only two disturbing options: either Mouse wasn’t normal, or she wasn’t in love.”
Then there are Mimi’s musings on the attractiveness of men: “…men whose weak chins could be ignored because they had nice eyes. Men whose funny jokes could be loved instead of good bone structure. Men who were plain old nice, who had a couple of features that seemed more than okay, when there was no one else. Ugly men whose wealth and power made up for everything. Men you needed to know to find attractive.”
On sex during classroom breaks: “…as Ralph bombed [Mimi’s] neck…with wet kisses, she felt as though he wasn’t so much caressing her breasts as twirling a combination lock, an anxious safecracker in training.”
This on the failed ambitions of Mimi’s screenwriting: “They had also rented a video…that proved unwatchable…[and] should have elicited condescending groans, ironic comments and elitist howls. Instead, it made you feel you were wasting your life, not something to be reminded of on New Year’s Eve.”
And there’s just plain ear candy too: “Her brain would not accept the words, the same way the laundromat change machine spit back her crinkled bills.” (I underlined this one and jotted “STEAL!” in the margin.)
“…he’d typed …on an old manual typewriter, the kind with leaping e’s and clotted o’s,” and “This rankled Mouse. She said it made her feel like the tray under a toaster that captured all the crumbs.”
From these excerpts you probably know that this second-coming of an out-of-print novel is very smart—and wonderfully smart-assed too, including an autobiographical screenplay, “Love Among the Gorillas,” that actually gets purchased by a none-too-bright Hollywood producer after insisting Mouse’s character be visiting Africa on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot. Not to be missed is a Corinthian LA wedding that gets called off due to Tony’s jealousy when he finds that the ceremonies will be filmed documentary-style by his bride’s Oscar-winning ex-boyfriend Ivan. A wedding that gets resurrected with a stand-in groom, [“if only to save a funded project because funded projects don’t come along everyday”]. And there’s the tragic death of a certain filmmaker who may have illegally sold one of his kidneys for money to finish the movie, a hoot-worthy Karbo sacrifice in the name of art!
This is what The New Yorker thought of TDL back in 1992: “It’s a testament to Karbo’s skill at high comedy that the ending of this book—a funeral rather than a wedding—leaves you smiling.”
Actually, The Diamond Lane may make you laugh out loud too, an excellent gift for curmudgeonly and literate friends. And come on, writers this good need to be encouraged, especially with royalties!