How many people — especially in Hollywood — ever really get to tell the truth? Hardly anyone — that’s what makes Julia Phillips’ new book, Driving Under the Affluence, such a disappointment. Her first book, 1991’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, was a 561-page stream-of-consciousness mishmash detailing her fall from Oscar-winning producer to washed-up rehab queen, but it was a dishy read, extraordinary because Phillips dared to break with the politics of show business and rat on the industry. Nobody was safe. She repeatedly slammed big kahuna David Geffen (she quoted Geffen describing Steven Spielberg — now his DreamWorks partner — as ”selfish, egomaniacal, and greedy”). She tattled that Goldie Hawn rarely bathed or washed her hair.
It’s hard to imagine a better setup for a sequel. After watching her first book hit No. 1 on the best-seller list, you want to know if Phillips was able to eat lunch in Hollywood again. You want to know the reaction she got from the bigwigs. You’re curious to find out if Goldie Hawn was shamed into better hygiene. You want more id from the town of super egos.
Well, maybe next time. In Driving Under the Affluence, Phillips squanders her unique position as Hollywood’s resident merry whistle-blower to attempt a turn as…Tom Wolfe. Driving includes some post-Lunch feedback (Mortons now refuses to take her reservations), but most of that is lost as Phillips decides to become a gonzo chronicler of L.A.’s Armageddon ’90s: the earthquake, the riots, the floods, the fires, the Juice. Instead of taking a wrong turn in the South Bronx, see Julia drive down to South Central! It’s as if Phillips believed that her first book was a success because she was a gifted writer and now she wants to try something more…creative. To that end, Phillips has cobbled together the literary equivalent of E-mail. What’s missing — beyond any semblance of a narrative — is the unexpurgated truth of the first book. Call this one Bonfire of the Verities.
If all you have to do is read the book, consider yourself lucky. You’ll only be bored and confused. If you have to review it, good luck. You may find yourself repeatedly referring to the effusive jacket blurb (”In this riveting sequel, Phillips expands the bright light of her brutal wit and frank observation…to shine relentlessly on all of L.A., particularly its darker corners”) for clues as to what it’s about, because, as Phillips herself would type, you have to ACTUALLY EXPLAIN IT.
Here, for example, is her description of her malfunctioning electric gate: ”It takes me an hour to find the manual switch. POWER OFF. POWER ON. BluppBlupp. CRACKERS. BluppBluppBluppBlupp. ONCE UPON A TIME.” The following section has something to do with the birth of what the book jacket calls her ”mythical talking dog”: ”And then SumTotal banged into a wall built of the screams of billions and billions of starving babies. Oy gevalte, they wailed. Oy gevalte! Bolted from torpor, suddenly motivated, she drafted her considerable consciousness to respond personally. En Masse. Who’s to account for the maternal instinct? She opted too bee.”
What’s sad about Driving Under the Affluence is the glimpse you get of what an entertaining read it could have been. Rather than a full-out skewering of the book-tour/talk-show circuit she endured to promote Lunch, for instance, we get just one little anecdote about Geraldo Rivera. (He has an ”enormous head” and a ”too tight tiny little body.”) And her relationship with her daughter, Kate, could have made for fascinating reading — if Phillips had bothered to talk straight about it. Phillips does offer a two-page respite from her hallucinogenic ramblings when she reprints her eulogy to her father. It’s well written and moving. As for the rest, one can only wail, Oy gevalte! D