Tinsel Town


From The Washington Post (February 20, 2000)

by Peter McCarthy

In his latest novel, Douglas Coupland -- author of, among other pop primers, Generation X, Microserfs and Girlfriend in a Coma -- again braves the Zeitgeist to capture our celebrity-worshipping culture. Specifically, he explores the outsized "real lives" of celebrities and those who cling to their marginal associations with stardom. I use the word "brave" because in capturing so precise a moment (in a book no less) Coupland risks near-instant obsolescence. But he is unafraid -- his Miss Wyoming basically, though not literally, is the fictional rendering of what might have happened had Don Simpson (the high-living producer of "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder") and JonBenet Ramsey lived and met.

Susan Colgate, the former kiddy pageant winner of the title, has had quite a past few years. Walking away unharmed from an airline wreck, and realizing nobody knew she had survived, Susan went underground to escape her fringe celeb life: no more cheesy commercials, no more B movies, no more monstrously overbearing pageant mom, no more flings with married agents, no more closeted rock star hubbies -- just being Susan. And, of course, searching for herself, after a life that included a stint as the shut-inhausfrau of a former pageant judge -- a marriage resulting in a child.

When schlock action-flick producer John Johnson bottomed out (too much coke, too many hookers, you know the deal), he was hospitalized and, while falling in and out of anesthetized sleep, experienced a vision -- or at least what he thought was a vision: Susan Colgate rising from the TV screen and speaking to him, urging him to drop his material wants and seek . . . well, something. Something big. Something like the truth. Something like himself. John decided it was "Into the Wild" time, emptying his wallet and setting out to live off the land.

At the opening of Miss Wyoming, they're both back from their misadventures. John spots Susan sitting across from him at an insider L.A. eatery and makes his way over to her table. He introduces himself and suggests they take a walk. Despite his recent Jon Krakauer-worthy jaunt, John's in a funk. Problem is, while he did manage to lose the cocaine and kinky sex that in the past had got him out of bed in the morning, he failed to find himself. Even "Megaforce," his latest mega-hit, can't stop his worryingaloud:

"I wonder, Hey, John Johnson, you've pretty much felt all the emotions you're ever likely to feel, and from here on it's reruns. And that totally scares me."

John's clearly looking for something beyond the L.A. lush life, and it is quickly apparent that, in Susan Colgate, he believes he's found it.

Susan feels the same. This meeting of the two reinvented Hollywood veterans provides both bookends to Coupland's yarn. What's in between, as John Johnson might say, is back story. Mostly Susan's back story. As she tells John, "what happened after the crash is a much better story."

Suffice it to say that a lot happens, and quite quickly. Coupland reveals his characters' histories in a fast-cut manner that will have readers being shot back and forth in time like yo-yos: Meet mom from hell, Susan's biggest fan, her fortune teller, the former pageant judge turned mail frauder; meet John's partner, his wife, the twin hookers, and so on. The technique can be trying, but Coupland keeps the narrative on target, weaving his plotlines into a mildly diverting, dysfunctional-family kidnap caper. While the payoff is barely worth the effort, I was forced to marvel at his storytelling verve and inventive prose style.

But Miss Wyoming lacks a theme. From the moment Susan and John meet, Coupland is all too clearly heading toward the all-American conclusion that the past can be transcended, that re-invention works. How successful he is depends on whether readers consider his broadly painted characters to be manically detailed fictional re-creations of stars -- or mere stereotypes. Unfortunately, to this reader they came across as the latter. Archetypes or stereotypes? Perhaps they're necessarily both, and the shortcomings of Miss Wyoming are less a result of Coupland's writing than of his choice of subject matter.

Peter McCarthy has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Review.