Edward Riche’s third novel concerns Elliot Johnson, a Hollywood screenwriter and oenophile, whose life is a mess. His career is sputtering, his marriage has failed, his money-losing vineyard is under federal investigation, and his son, who refuses to speak to him, languishes in prison on drug charges. In the book’s opening scene, Elliot conducts a wine tasting for the trophy wives of several powerful Hollywood producers. “There comes a time if you’re being analytical,” says Elliot, “when failures are more intriguing than successes.” Regarding wine, I will have to take Elliot’s word for this. I only wish the same were true for novels.
At first, Easy to Like appears to want to style itself after a sprawling Richler satire, say St. Urbain’s Horseman or Solomon Gursky Was Here. However, the first requirement for such a book is a suitably complex and compelling protagonist. Elliot is rendered in such cursory terms that, even by the novel’s end, one is left speculating on his psychology and motivations.
The plot sees Elliot set out for France to escape his difficulties, but passport troubles strand the Newfoundland native in Canada. Hollywood connections lead to an interview for the position of CBC’s vice-president of English programming, and he lands the job. Riche attempts a send-up of things behind the scenes at “the Corpse,” but discussions regarding the nature of Canada, its television-viewing audience, and the challenges of program scheduling prove less than gripping or illuminating.
Meanwhile, chapter after chapter passes with nary a word about Elliot’s son, who is rotting away in some maximum-security hellhole. We never do meet him, or learn the details of his predicament, but this is typical of Easy to Like. Characters and events are mentioned but rarely developed, while Riche’s attempts at satire veer into silliness: a California cult whose gun-toting members use loaves of bread for shoes; a vagrant who becomes a staple of Elliot’s programming schedule; the president of the CBC accidentally stumbling to his death from the roof of a hotel bar.
The book’s aim is so broad, and the writing at times so slapdash, one senses little is at stake, rendering the novel’s ironies innocuous. Riche simply takes far too much for granted in a book that reads less like a finished novel than a treatment Elliot might be hired to work on in sunny California.