Ladies Who Lunch: a satirical taste of L.A. by Josef Woodard

Review by George Yatchisin

It’s 1990-something, and although fabulous Danielle Wiffard’s marriage is about to blow, fortunately for her (and this book’s readers), all of L.A.’s eligible bachelors, not to mention its ineligible but still very willing married men, are eager for a dalliance and maybe more. But not much more, for this is L.A., of course, and the surfaces tend to run surface deep. At least in the way they’re reflected in Josef Woodard’s biting but far from bitter debut novel Ladies Who Lunch: a satirical taste of L.A.

Santa Barbara-based Woodard is one of the hardest working men in journalism, having written for the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as just one outlet (there’s also buckets of ink for DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, the Santa Barbara Independent…and books about jazz greats Charles Lloyd and Charlie Haden, so Mingus or Christian must be next). He was in the midst of that LA Times run when he wrote this book, so it’s not just a period piece, it was actually written at the time. He turned family connections in the rock world and the fast lane into the fictionalized Ladies Who Lunch.

Given Woodard’s journalistic eye generally focuses on the cultural, it’s little surprise the book is equally attuned to the world of music and film. The first real band to get a shout out is one of his all-time favorites, Steely Dan; Danielle has a moment tooling along Wilshire blasting “Babylon Sisters,” a hint she might have more soul under the blonde than we might first assume.

Woodard resists just picking the low-hanging satirical fruit—sure, he lampoons a David Cassidy-esque post-bubble gum popstar named Cassidy Stingfield, and yes, characters dine at Prego instead of Spago. But matching real life models for Woodard’s slightly amped up fictional world is only a tiny bit of the fun.

For it’s easy to situate Ladies Who Lunch in the deep, delightful 1990s Altman catalog, which makes sense as Woodard is also a film critic/buff. His book has often got the zip of The Player in the way it punctures all sorts of Hollywood holy cows (such as empty-headed late-night hosts), but it keeps getting haunted by darker issues, in particular its setting’s affinity for natural disasters. The end of Short Cuts definitely gets echoed here. (I hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler.)

Of course, both those Altman works had literary roots, and Woodard is certainly closer to Michael Tolkin than Ray Carver, being both a satirist (at least in this book) and not a minimalist. (Plus, Carver originally wrote his stories about the Pacific Northwest.) Tolkin’s film New Age also might be a bit of an influence, as its main characters share the same understandable, loveable, exasperating flaw with Woodard’s protagonist Danielle: all three can only conceive of the term career as anything but lifestyle.

But I risk making the book sound more serious than it is. It’s keen without worrying to make too many proclamations, so you can relish the deftness of a passage like this one, about a model whose dishabille graces the billboards on Sunset:

In walks Marti Kaust, with her escort whose name everybody instantly forgets. She had changed her clothes, and was in a revealing peach-colored, one-piece affair that seemed like a cross between a low-cut bathing suit and farmer’s overalls. Her impeccably clean hair had a kind of calculatedly tousled look, as if she just stepped out of a mild windstorm. She was unnaturally skinny, like a boy with boobs, just like the way men like ’em.

“Um, hi.” She talked softly, like melted cheese. American cheese.

How much of the world we still live in gets taken down in those 85 words. Woodard helps us laugh, even as we reconsider ideas of beauty and gender and desire and fashion. And is there a bigger American cheese than Hollywood at this point?