Back in early 1999, I was hunting around at the Olson’s bookstore
on Seventh Street
when I happened upon a book called “Like a Hole in the Head” by a first-time author named Jen Banbury
. I was intrigued by a sharply-designed cover and even further enthralled by the description on the back of the book:
“Jill, a part-time bookseller and full-time wise-ass, buys a first edition Jack London from a slippery-looking dwarf. The dwarf returns soon after with a polite assassin who wants the book back. Unfortunately Jill has already unloaded it for a nice profit, to a fomer child actor turned book dealer turned love interest. She isn't about to drop the dime on him, so the upshot is, Jill has to find it -- or else. What at first seems like a lucky break turns into unexpected adventure when a cast of B-movie thugs, sleazy book dealers, and ambitious Hollywood moguls join the hunt for the book. Jill finds herself leading an antic chase -- via motorcycle, station wagon, and hijacked bottled-water delivery truck -- across Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Hollywood Hills. Before she can retrieve the book and discover its irresistible secret, Jill will be cheated, lied to, drugged, tortured, and even forced to act as a movie extra against her will.”
With such an unusual description (Forced to be an extra? Former child actors? A station wagon?), I had no other choice but to buy it. I spend hours browsing in bookstores every week, but rarely do I feel compelled to get anything. Sure, I'll buy a book based on the cover or jacket description, but I never assume I'm going to enjoy it before I open the cover. In the case of Like a Hole in the Head, I knew it would be great.
I read it in three days and was genuinely impressed. I’m not a big fan of the crime genre -- even the hip ones --like the “Nick Stefanos” books by George Pelecanos or anything by Elmore Leonard -- have left me bored. But Banbury gives a pretty standard “chase the McGuffin” plot a quirky sense of style, serving up a view of the underbelly of LA that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cohen bothers film, while offering a surprisingly complex literary experience. Jill, the unreliable narrator, is just as charming and despicable as FH (aka “Fuckhead”) from my favorite contemporary novel, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Regardless of the mayhem going on around her, you can’t help but find yourself caught up in her inner journey as the book slowly reveals the real issues in her life. Reviewers like to pawn it off as “slacker noir,” but there’s much more going on than that. This isn’t a Douglas Coupland novel grafted onto a mystery -- Jill is a real character, not a tool for making a statement about a certain demographic. She's the heart and soul of a very clever book, and without her as a credible lead, it would have fallen apart.
Even though it’s been a couple years since I last read it, Like a Hole in the Head remains just on the periphery of my subconscious. Every time I come across a copy in a used book store, I am compelled to buy it (or liberate it) and give it a friend. I am currently in possession of only one copy of the book, although I’m always on the look out for another.
Sadly, the author has yet to write another novel. Google searches turn up no new information (although I learned the book was adapted for the screen), and besides a few essays on an obscure literary webzine (including a particularly compelling one about visiting Ground Zero shortly after 9/11), there's no sign of her.