Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 292 pp., $24
In fiction, when country naifs ship off to the big city to reinvent themselves, they go to New York or Paris. On the off chance they end up in Los Angeles, they usually skulk around muggy corners in Hollywood hawking scripts. They do not often go to the outer San Fernando Valley, unless they are perhaps looking for employment in the field of cinematic sexual stamina.
That's where Oppen Porter, the 28-year-old narrator of Antoine Wilson's second novel, "Panorama City," winds up on a quest to become a "man of the world." This is an intended irony that soaks into every corner of thebook. The actual Panorama City is so nondescript that the area stands in for Scranton, Pa., in "The Office." Here, it's meant as an affectionate suggestion that self-discovery is a process you can embark on anywhere. But by the end of "Panorama City's" sometimes amusing, often exhaustingly precious traipse around the Valley's burger chains and quack psychologists, it's all enough to make you want to stay south of Burbank.
Porter follows a long line of young male flaneurs in American fiction trying to stake a claim in a city. Some are naïve ("Sophie's Choice"), some are ravenous strivers ("The Great Gatsby"), some are incorrigibly dense ("A Confederacy of Dunces").
Wilson inverts this by making Porter a kind of low-spectrum autistic Christ child of suburbia. After a mishap in which he gets caught burying his deceased dad in his small-town backyard, he schleps to L.A. to stay with an aunt and start over, while also falling under the spell of a bus-mate grifter whom Wilson evocatively describes as looking like a "newly hatched alligator."
A character doesn't need to end up fighting bulls in Pamplona or slogging through the World War II Polish bloodlands to figure out the big questions of life, and in "Panorama City" the Valley's this-could-be-anywhere qualities sometimes make for a fine ramble through America's sunniest heart of darkness.
But Porter is such a fire hose of doofusy earnestness that even when his antics are meant as ambling comedy he can be hard to spend time with. He wears binoculars at all times for effect and in an extended set piece causes a near-tumult in his fast-food joint by making a special French-fry order: "In that moment, the moment of him walking away with the abnormally long fries on his tray but not having noticed them yet, I felt quite good about myself, I had given the meekest customer a preview of his future inheritance, French fries coming from the earth, I mean, via potatoes. I had not only solved the problem of my lack of freedom but also changed someone's life in the process."
Yes, it's meant to provoke endearing laughs. But this is the part of the world that gave us Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," porn star suicides and the serial-killing sweethearts Doug Clark and Carol Bundy. In the L.A. artistic imagination, the Valley is steeped in noir. "Panorama City's" picaresque twee doesn't feel entirely convincing here.
Along the way, Porter gets suckered into huckster scams and trusts all the wrong people and returns to his small town to patch things up with an ex, where the book ends in the perennially clichéd way of evoking the world's potential: with the impending birth of Porter's child.
Wilson, an L.A.-based author whose well-reviewed debut novel, "The Interloper," featured an obsessive and unreliable narrator, keeps "Panorama City" brisk and unpretentiously scruffy. Porter's aunt is a welcome check on his goofier impulses. There's even an unexpectedly resonant riff at the end in which Porter's "slow absorber" qualities ring with real knowledge. Writing from a hospital bed after being whacked by a car while riding his bike, he suggests that "the expression attached to firemen and doctors and other sorts of caregivers should be postponing death."
This is a book that requires a certain devotion to its narrator, and Oppen Porter's insights don't quite command it. Like many nice guys circling the L.A. periphery, Oppen Porter feels as if he's just passing through.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun