Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale
Maybe the current economic meltdown the world-over has got me down, but I found Chris Ayres’ Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale a hard pill to swallow. Could it be that the time for cautionary tales has long passed? Every other fiction new release, it seems, touches upon environmental disaster, or endless war, or the disaster wrought by people living en masse beyond their means; this book touches upon all three. While the topics may be more relevant than ever now, Ayres would have done well to take a fresher approach if he wished to stand out from the ever-growing crowd of heralds trumpeting in the End Times.
Ayres paints a picture of Los Angeles through the eyes of an English transplant who is both repelled and possessed by the culture of consumption. The city is smothered in smog and mind-numbingly hot temperatures, while its inhabitants live out their lives blissfully unaware, drifting from air-conditioned apartments to air-conditioned cars. His L.A. is grit, sweat, anxiety, neuroses, and desperation, glossed over with a barely-there sheen of glamour and luxury.
Particularly in his romantic pursuits, Ayres exhibits a calculated level of self-deprecation and apathy. Sent to L.A. as a journalist and correspondent for a British newspaper, Ayres daily life is structured by assignments and demands from The Beast on the other end of the telephone line. It becomes clear that whatever journalistic zeal he arrived with, Ayres has lost. Rather, he uses his credentials to score access to exclusive parties, to which he invites women he hopes to woo. Ayres is no fool; he can see the writing on the wall, and the writing spells certain destruction, environmentally and financially. It’s his refusal to act outside of his own needs, in spite of this knowledge, that remains his least endearing quality throughout the book.
The real estate bubble of the United States is stretched to its limits, poised to burst, nowhere more obviously than in Los Angeles. Yet Ayres wheels and deals with reckless abandon to finagle a “piggy back” mortgage while the getting’s still good that will land him in a multi-million dollar home he has no prayer of affording. Reader, bear in mind, the protagonist has been hawking furniture on CraigsList to pay the rent on his apartment. Toxic assets, sub-prime mortgages, financial acrobatics—oh, what a twisted web, and all that. His high jinks couldn’t be more timely, or infuriating.
Yet, under the guise of a jaded Los Angeles satire, there are grains of wisdom to be found in Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale. When there is nothing left to be done, get the whole mess down on paper and don’t take yourself too seriously. Find someone to make a home with and try to be happy. Wean yourself off the things you don’t need. Have a baby, even if you’re not sure this is a world you want to bring a child into. That mess you got down on paper, however sarcastic or seemingly apathetic, might start to mean something. It may not be too late for that cautionary tale.