- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009



By Chris Ayres

Grove, $24, 288 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

You can tell from the title of his book about being an embedded journalist for (count them!) nine days during the Iraq war - “War Reporting for Cowards” - that British reporter Chris Ayres is a master of the art of self-deprecation.

His latest book, “Death by Leisure,” deals with his battles on a totally different front: a war with ever-increasing excess as seen from his vantage point as correspondent for the Times of London in the fleshpots of Hollywood.

But whether accredited by his paper to Baghdad or Los Angeles, Mr. Ayres' primary rule is always to make himself the butt, the joker, the fool, the knave - or a variety of other terms, largely anatomical, too impolite to print here but more in line with the kind of language he is wont to use - of every situation being described.

As a writer, he knows exactly what he is doing: Getting there with a devastating auto-put-down before the most censorious reader can rush to judgment, making him criticism- as well as envy-proof. Unlike his previous assignment, this one should be a dream, but reading this account of Mr. Ayres' daily travails, nay agonies, as he confronts the challenges of one deluxe venue after another, seems like more of a nightmare.

Mr. Ayres covers Southern California the way the first space tourist might cover Venus. I have lived here since the year he was born (1975) and was here for every day that he describes, including those apocalyptic periods when hot winds and forest fires did indeed plague the area. Yet I was living in a recognizable part of planet Earth, more familiar to my fellow earthlings than you might think from “Death by Leisure.”

Mr. Ayres is not one of those transplanted writers who manages to penetrate to the heart or capture the essence of the terrain he is writing about. Los Angeles is a hugely diverse polyglot megalopolis drawing on innumerable cultures and strata of American society, but you wouldn't really know it from reading this book. No Paul Theroux here.

Yet Mr. Ayres can be very funny. Consider this description - hyperbolic to be sure - of a famous local watering hole more renowned for its clientele and the attendant paparazzi than for its cuisine or hospitality:

“The waiters … are so sensationally unpleasant you're practically reduced to tears of gratitude when they slam a plate down in front of you instead of smashing it over your head and gouging your eyes out with the broken shards. … You hear horror stories, possibly exaggerated, about unimportant diners being hustled by a bellboy … and on into a back room, then another back room, then down three flights of stairs to a basement, through another door, across a parking lot, and into a converted utility shed, in which a solitary table sits directly in front of a workmen's Port-a John.

“Yes, you have to watch yourself [there]. And you have to watch the bill, too. A lobster salad and a bottle of sparkling water could max out the King of Saudi Arabia's American Express black card.”

Mr. Ayres generally concentrates on the surface glamour and glitter of the glitziest aspects of what one would expect of Hollywood and its attendant locales. Just as he makes himself an easy target, he picks out occasions and situations to cover that are all too easy to mock and deride, like spas that offer caviar facials. Opening Night parties and A-list soirees are represented as enormous hurdles and obstacles to be overcome: Usually he succeeds in doing so, but the terror and difficulties attendant on his desperate efforts make for a good story and make him more sympathetic.

Suffice it to say that none of his encounters with these glittering rhinestone events or the glitterati themselves are zipless - and are all the better for it in his agonized recountings. When he does wander geographically, it is as likely as not to be to Las Vegas, where he finds more of the same, with even more wretched excess. His official duties are covered by an expense account, of course, but the book is also a pained chronicle of his personal expenditures spiraling out of control.

Of course, Mr. Ayres' wild ride financed on the wave of ever-increasing cycles of debt is rather different in the context of today's post-crash mentality than he might have expected it to be when he wrote his breathless account.

Things have a way of resonating in an altered manner, as when he talks of getting an interest-only repayment on a mortgage he cannot afford and then refinancing it with another, even more accommodating bank. And if this wouldn't have an ominous enough ring to it anyway, both of these institutions made headlines in the past year, and not the kind they would have liked to have associated with their names.

But even someone like Mr. Ayres is not always frivolous, and by the book's end he is thoroughly chastened, a sadder but wiser man. Having scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of this early 21st century financial madness, he emerges as a pillar of economic wisdom:

“Yes, America will soon be so deep in the hole that not even the National Debt Clock will be able to keep up. …

“The Fed is now lowering interest rates again, as if more cheap money will fix everything. But the Fed doesn't need to make money any cheaper than it already is. Inflation caused by demand from the Chinese, the Russians and the Indians for the world's natural resources is already seeing to that. And the more we buy with our cheap money, the more inflation will make our money cheaper, until our cheap money won't be able to buy anything any more, because it'll be too cheap.”

Seems as if Mr. Ayres is now superbly qualified to move on to an even more challenging assignment than the battlefields of Iraq or the fleshpots of Hollywood and Las Vegas: the world's financial hubs. And if he ever does, I suspect he'll find out there what true terror is.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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