A Better Goodbye, the debut novel of sports writer John Schulian, has been compared to the work of a writer like Elmore Leonard, and while this initial effort may not have quite the polish of vintage Leonard, Schulian is painting with a similar palate, relying as much on the creation of absorbing major characters as he does on blood and mayhem.
Set in the gritty Los Angeles of massage parlors, second rate actors, and criminals, some vicious, some wannabees, Schulian focuses on Jenny Yee, a young Asian college student working as a massage girl and Nick Pafko an emotionally broken ex-boxer. Neither is an assembly line product. Yee is cute, not gorgeous. She is in the sex business, but she has strict limits. She reads the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the novels of Stendahl. Pafko, once a promising fighter, lost his passion and his effectiveness when he accidently killed his opponent during a fight.
Now, down on his luck, he is working as security in a high end massage parlor, run by Scott Crandall, an over the hill actor looking to expand from pimping to other criminal activity. To that end he cultivates the friendship of Onus DuPree, a violent ex-con with a hair trigger temper. This is the quartet of central figures in the novel. And when Pafko and Yee begin to have feelings for each other, and then Pafko and DuPree get into a pissing contest, the scene is set for some inevitable fireworks. And fireworks is what Schulian provides, when DuPree decides first to enlist Crandall to rob one of Yee’s customers, and then double cross Crandall and rob the massage parlor.
The four major figures are surrounded by a supporting cast of less fully developed, indeed often stereotyped characters: a benevolent fatherly fight trainer, a shyster lawyer, a sports writer down on his luck, plus a variety of johns and an assortment of massage girls with made-up names like Sierra, Kianna, Twyla, Rikki and Ling, to name just a few. These are the kinds of background characters—those that E. M. Forster called “flat characters”—that satisfyingly provide breadth and context, but don’t need to be fleshed out with a lot of detail.
Schulian tells a good story: A Better Goodbye will have you turning pages with anticipation as it builds to a crescendo and then rewards you with a smash bang finale.