The saucy first chapter of Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park makes for delicious reading, especially if you've always loathed the handsome playboy ''It'' writer of the late 1980s. No critic could be nastier to Ellis than he is to his narrator, a handsome playboy ''It'' writer named Bret Easton Ellis whose career more or less tracks the author's. Narrator Ellis hits the jackpot with a callow student exercise called Less Than Zero (''If there's an audience for a novel about coke-snorting, c---sucking zombies, then by all means let's publish the damn thing,'' his publisher says), becomes notorious for acts of gross public misbehavior with characters named Jay and Tama and Robert (as in McInerney, Janowitz, and Downey Jr.), then produces more ''shiny booklike objects,'' including American Psycho, a novel so sordid and outrageously violent that Simon & Schuster forfeits its $300,000 advance. Knopf quickly picks up the rights, making Ellis even richer.
The fictional Ellis, at least, pays a price: Early in Lunar Park, he deteriorates into a grotesque caricature of himself, a bloated wreck in his bed, ''watching porn DVDs with the sound off and snorting maybe forty bags of heroin, a blue plastic bucket that I vomited into continuously by my side, and telling myself that the lack of respect from the critical community was what hurt so much and why I had to drug myself away from the pain. I just lay back and kept waiting for the tawdry end of the incendiary career.''
The real Ellis, however, is clearly upright and trying to reignite that incendiary career by marrying these metafictional games to a crowd-pleasing Dean Koontzian creep show. Can a novelist famous for his tales of depravity settle into a life of domestic bliss? To find out, Ellis' alter ego hits rock bottom, gets clean, and marries pretty, wholesome actress Jayne Dennis, whom he dated a decade ago and with whom he had a son, Robby, now 11. Equipped with this cozy (and synthetic) insta-family, narrator Ellis starts playing house in a suburban McMansion and working on a new novel, Teenage Pussy. Except for the occasional coke binge, midday shots of Ketel One, and sporadic bathroom make-out sessions with grad students, all seems to be going pretty well. That is, until author Ellis pulls out his bag of scary and cheesy party tricks.
Consider the following phenomena: A young man dressed as Patrick Bateman the flesh-gnawing psycho killer from American Psycho turns up at Ellis' Halloween party, driving the same cream-colored Mercedes as Ellis' late father. A stuffed bird starts leaving scratch marks on the ceiling and disemboweled animals in the yard. Furniture rearranges itself, paint peels off walls, and something or someone tracks ashy footprints on the carpet. Local boys of Robby's age have been disappearing; could Robby be implicated? And who decapitated (and blowtorched) the woman in the local motel?
And which of these creepy plotlines are we supposed to be most concerned about? My vote would be for Patrick Bateman, though the stuffed bird becomes a contender after it squeezes its way up the family dog's anus. It's not hard to get Ellis' point: The writer can't escape his own demented imagination. His creations like his reputation and his emotional shortcomings will chase him into every safe house.
So, of course, do his artistic failings. Lunar Park is breezily written and sometimes wickedly funny, but Ellis seems so eager to shock and entertain that he can't choose a single, elegant ghoul or even two to make his case. Like his early work, Lunar Park is a victim of sophomoric overkill.