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Last, Yes; Best, No

Last Best Thing
Cyberman: Reid Brown's frontispiece for "Last Best Thing"

Pat Dillon's Silicon Valley roman à clef has more bugs than even Windows 95

The Last Best Thing
By Pat Dillon
Simon & Schuster; 350 pages; $23 cloth

Reviewed by Richard von Busack

'A CLASSIC TALE of Greed, Deception and Mayhem in the Silicon Valley" reads the subtitle for Pat Dillon's The Last Best Thing. How this book, serialized in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year, became a classic in the space of several months eludes me. The tale itself eluded me during its first run in the Mercury. I was both unwilling to commit to a serial and chased off by the hideous computer-enhanced Gorgons that Reid Brown used to illustrate the text--preserved, regrettably, for the novel.

Dillon, an editor-at-large at the Mercury has all the requisite journalistic credentials (or so the dustjacket back-flap copy boastfully tells me). Obviously I defer to him as a reporter. But if it took him more than a month to write The Last Best Thing, I'd be flabbergasted.

The novel delves into the marketing of some high-tech vaporware by a company so hot that it doesn't even have a name yet. The charismatic entrepreneur J.P. McCorwin tries to raise venture capital while stalling the inevitable exposure that he has nothing to sell. What begins as a satire ends as a weird tale of malignant artificial intelligence and a search for a hacker named RoseD.

In either tale, you'd expect a roman à clef hinting at where all the real-life bodies are buried based on Dillon's inside knowledge. Instead, the book offers a cavalcade of the obvious, stuffed with secondhand revelations. Did you know that Bill Gates is a very power-hungry man? Or that the president of Oracle is very rich and likes Japanese culture?

Admittedly, I was sufficiently bamboozled by the jargon, as I was meant to be. At one point, the characters work on a project "decoding any Netscape-preemptive avatars Wintel might be experimenting with," which certainly sounds very technical. Still, the point of this kind of novel is that it's meant to be funnier the more you know about the business--but that it ought to be funny even if you don't.

The Last Best Thing is not just hastily written, though you'd guess that from the local-color blindness of misspelling "Harte's" department store and using the world "malapropism" wrong twice in two different ways, before giving us a true malapropism (substituting "body mutilation" for "body manipulation"). Neither is it flawed merely by the vaudeville French of McCorwin's No. 2 man--the cutely named Baba RAM DOS, who, admiring the minuteness of a silicon chip, murmurs, "Formidable; it is so petite!" Nor is it just annoyingly full of gross puffery. The valley, Dillon has a character say, without fear of contradiction, "may be the single greatest collection of intelligence [sic] since the Renaissance."

No, what really sinks the book is the heroine Maria Cisneros, who is being mentored by McCorwin. Dillon first tantalizes us with Cisneros' "chiseled facial contours and open, fiery green eyes." Don't get any big ideas; Maria is a terrible goody-two-shoes.

A graduate of Stanford Business School--she had applied to the school on "half a lark" (yuck, bird guts)--she is also a woman of the people, the daughter of a farm worker. Her father materializes now and then to help her through the tough times by giving her some mescal and reminding her of the small good things of life--"And the apricots, too, oh los huevos del sol, we called them. Remember?"

Cisneros seems to have an interesting attraction to an female FBI agent named Lily Watanabe, who is assigned to find RoseD. Their two cars narrowly avert a collision in the Pruneyard parking lot, "symbolizing their emerging relationship," Dillon writes with typical subtlety. Unfortunately, Dillon quickly squishes this interesting possibility: "They compared notes. They were both straight." Stupid to get your hopes up; for a moment, what with the tangy near-entanglement of cars, I'd forgotten that this story was originally printed in a newspaper where kids could see it.

The phrase "hubba-hubba," seen in Brown's illustrations, is about as racy as it gets, unless you count some coy references to cybersex. If ever a narrative could have used some gratuitous sex, The Last Best Thing is it.

LIKE Douglas Coupland, Dillon likes to create verisimilitude through the larding in of brand names and restaurants. Even if this is the first published novel to mention San Jose's Cactus Club and Saratoga's Le Mouton Noir, Dillon's dropping of names begins to wear on you like the sound of rain on a tin roof. Here's page 44 alone: Banana Republic, Façonnable, Wilson Sporting Goods and Porsche.

At times, the dropping of brands becomes surreal. A peripheral character complains, "She even made a crack about my Calvin Kleins. Hell, I wear Dockers. I don't even wear Calvin briefs. I wear Gap boxers." This isn't exactly what's meant by stripping characters down to their skin, but what Dillon was no doubt trying to do was to flesh out some characters by weaving them out of designer labels.

Oh, The Last Best Thing has heart, all right, and you'll see it pulsing in the dripping sentimental finale: Cisneros' "It's a Wonderful Life" speech, presented in front of the Lionel Barrymore­like figure of Bill Gates himself.

Dillon hits his mark sometimes--particularly in describing the squalor of a programmer's apartment, a dirty nest of sports equipment and pin-up photos. But because of the two-dimensional characters, the brand loyalty, the cafes, the freeways, the restaurants, the health clubs, The Last Best Thing paints an unintentionally harrowing picture of a valley as empty as those virtual cities you see in ads for futuristic products, cities built through computer animation, the horizon glowing a dull bronze over empty streets a mile wide, upon which featureless, windowless cars whiz by like electrons.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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