Hermosa Beach novelist, J. Matthew Nespoli hits a home run with “Broken” in what some call the great L.A. novel. It’s an incisive bit of story telling that skillfully braids the lives of more than half a dozen strangers, each reaching for the billboard promise of happiness in the City of the Angels.
Nespoli hooks you in from page one with Sky, a pregnant, homeless 17-year old chasing that all-too-familiar dream of rock stardom while battling a drug addiction. Amber, on the other hand, is a young black mother on the run with her daughter, Kimberly, trying to stay one step ahead of two dangerous men from her past. And trying to stay a step ahead of his father is TJ, an out of work actor, who fails auditions by day, and dons a hamburger suit at the mall by night.
The list of “broken” characters is as varied as L.A.’s melting pot: a daughter of a mafia don, an overweight girl raised by two gay men, a sexually scarred psychologist, a lonely physical therapist, a retired professional football player addicted to pain killers, an aging model facing a dead-end career. Like reading the personal diaries of 14 troubled souls, Nespoli draws you into their confidences, dreams and failures, shifting from one character’s POV narrative to the next. It’s unconventional but it works, delineating lives and personalities like the patchwork quilt of L.A.’s zip codes.
Based on real people, Broken offers a voyeuristic view of damaged individuals in various states of disrepair. We’re given a Rear Window peek into their sometimes pathetic, aimless and self-destructive lives. Many just take one step forward and two steps back, never really gaining on life’s precarious game board. Like so many people trapped in L.A.’s underbelly, hope tied to an unrealistic dream is both cure and curse. And when things go bad, sex and drugs keep them from total despair. One character takes us to the brink of suicide, another offers a glimpse into the final seconds of death. Their stories are gripping, poignant, honest and in some cases riveting.
Broken succeeds because it admits a common truth in life: most people don’t really change. But because Broken is about the city of dreams, where people can change, we plow on, hoping that someone will win the lottery or become the next American Idol. It’s this struggle against adversity that propels Broken forward. And it pulls us into the lives of characters who seem, in some cases, just inches from success. We want to reach into the page, grab Sky or TJ by the neck and lead them several hundred pages forward and yell, “see, this is what’s going to happen to you if you don’t change!”
The dialog is often crisp and sharp, revealing nuances of character, and moving the narrative forward without getting bogged down with too much exposition or moralizing. There are awkward pick up lines, snappy banter, even a wager between the sexes on the 405 freeway. And like an L.A. freeway, characters inch along, and pass each other only to reconnect later, discovering that each is stuck in life’s slow lane going nowhere.
Broken won best short story award from Joyous Publishing in 2006, and has been adapted as a screenplay, which is currently being shopped around Hollywood.