At first glance, it might be a ghost story. It isn't dumb, implausible, or meant to give you a jolt of adrenaline fright, but like a campfire tale, Michael Scott Moore's Too Much of Nothing builds to a point of tension that has a scare at the top and a denouement that leaves you looking over your shoulder, just a little. If you could be a bit more vigilant, you may think, slightly more paranoid than the book's protagonist, you might escape his fate.
Reviews of this first novel (by SF Weekly's theater critic) mention its ghost-story aspect, and, yes, the main character is a nefesh, which the book, quoting from a Jewish religious text called the Zohar, describes as “the human shape or spirit that wanders the world after death.” The consciousness in question, the now-dead 15-year-old Eric Sperling, is unable to communicate meaningfully with the living, but according to his further research into Judaism, he's condemned to go over the facts of his life until they make sense. Hence this novel.
The facts of young Sperling's life boil down to a set of fairly recognizable bones. He is, in the words of Hank Williams Sr., “Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you,” a semitypical Southern California teenager trying to balance “urges and hopes in me that were fierce but embarrassing” with the damnable laziness and avarice that beset most of us. In addition, the self-described “shlemiel” has a serious nemesis in the form of his friend Tom, a reckless, lying chauvinist with the kind of thin charm and piggy eyes that make him almost emblematic of normative masculinity. A plot ensues involving several girls (one in particular), an important car, and a brick of cocaine originally belonging to a Nicaraguan contra supporter. Also a Dead Kennedys show, surfing, and pathetic, wan parents: In short, nothing too far away from the hellish existence of an awful lot of suburban kids.
But even though the obvious shtick of the story is the ghost-protagonist — and Moore goes to great lengths to emphasize it, opening the book with the line, “The graveyard where my bones are buried lies close enough to the beach to receive a shroud of fog” — Too Much of Nothing is, in fact, a murder mystery, and a complicated, satisfying one at that. “How did poor Eric die?” the reader wonders, feeling simultaneously lulled into torpor by descriptions of yellow skies and hot pavement. “And why?” Moore keeps hinting at the answers, until you think you already know. You don't, though, and when the death scene comes, late in the story, you find that the author has been misleading you. Clues come along, signs point in different directions, and characters change loyalties or disappear — just as in a film noir.
By this time, though, the reader is aware that the author is not trotting down well-worn paths. His turns of phrase have been duly noted, as when Eric describes that quintessential L.A. County pastime, bad driving: “Tom steered the Chrysler into a wide, high-speed left turn. Our tires chirped. … The pickup gained on us. In the passenger seat I saw three faces brushed by the slow rhythm of lights overhead. One of them held the passenger door half-open and clutched something in one hand.” And the characters are as painful and sympathetic as any teens in literature. Eric's constant inner turmoil is a joy to identify with, especially when he's measuring himself against Tom: “Instead of calling him a fraud or a poser, I thought I could learn to judge, disinterestedly, whatever he was up to. I didn't know everything, as he had pointed out. I wasn't God, so I was never likely to know the full story of his relationship with Rachel or, for that matter, the full story of anything else. I wanted to undo myself, vanish, and learn — somehow — the pure unmitigated truth. With this mission in mind, I shared my chips with Tom at lunch.” Moore's humor, despite its subtlety, provides some out-loud laughs: This reviewer was embarrassed on the bus several times.
Where Too Much of Nothing could have been a smug exercise in setting Sunset Blvd. in the land of Dogtown and Z-Boys, the author instead uses the story line to build a metaphor of adolescence. Which of us does not wonder, “What happened to me when I was about 15? Why did I turn into a different person, when I didn't even want to?” At the same time we nurse vivid memories of those who crushed our innocence — when and where and what the light was like. We may feel as if we've been merely floating through life ever since, alienated and unheard, unless we do something spectacularly horrible. People so often feel arrested at that point, never having progressed beyond the impotence of childhood, that when the gray hair and the sags come, they're outraged and surprised. At least Moore spares his nefesh this.