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The Big L.I.E.

A book and a movie explore the Long Island cliche.

11:01 PM, Dec 5, 2001 • By DAVID SKINNER
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IT REACHED ITS PEAK in the early '90s, when Amy Fisher shot Mrs. Joey Buttafuoco: the decades-long transformation of Long Island into a laughingstock. The setting for "The Great Gatsby" became known as a cultural valley of the ashes, home to loud girls with big hair and the Guidos who married them. A recent novel and a newish movie, both of which garnered significant critical praise, do almost nothing to defend the honor of this unusual, punchy, and wonderful place.

Which would hardly matter if their stories simply took place on Long Island. But such is not the case in last year's "L.I.E.," a novel by David Hollander (who grew up in Suffolk County), or this year's "L.I.E.," an unrelated movie directed and co-written by Michael Cuesta (also a Long Island native). L.I.E. stands for Long Island Expressway, a six-lane highway that runs all the way from the western end of Queens to Riverhead way out on the north fork. Judging from these two works, the L.I.E. is to Long Island what the Beltway is to Washington, D.C., a handy and unpleasant symbol for people who don't like the place anyway.

"L.I.E." the novel is a joyless ride. "Cutting through the landscape, connecting small towns to the world at large," says the backcover, "the Long Island Expressway has many exits--and each one tells a story." But a great number of Hollander's characters are no more than split-second riffs on the awfulness of their hometown. And those developed beyond one-sentence summary judgments don't come off any better.

Main character Harlan Kessler's father is an overweight dope whose wife cheats on him. He appears as the perfect expression of a Long Island loser. "Jesus Christ, he muses. The post office. I work the night shift at the goddamn post office. I was Harlan's age once. I sang in a band. I had a fast car." (Italics in the original.) A flashback to when Harlan and his father went fishing suggests the man has hidden reserves. While fighting a bass, the line on his fishing rod snaps. "He leaps in the lake and reaches for the frayed line before it disappears forever, before this becomes just one more regret, and he wraps this garrote around his hand and wrist . . . as he manually drags the bass . . . his nostrils flaring, his eyes wide, his beard dripping. No fish could ever have anticipated such lunacy." (Italics, original.)

Too bad Harlan's father lives near the L.I.E. Else he might be increasingly in touch with his highly entertaining inner clown. As things stand, Harlan's father is for the rest of the book held hostage to the author's adolescent ax-grinding over how dumb and decadent Long Island is. And absurd. To make this latter point, Hollander devotes twenty-two pages, about one-tenth of this slim novel, to rendering the story as an absurdist play. Such is Hollander's impatience with Long Island and its actual, can't-believe-it, realness that, after italicizing every other word for emphasis, he subjects the place to an alien invasion. Long Island becomes, albeit briefly, a construction of science fiction. The effect is unreal, dude--and too inane for discussion. (Italics mine, for extreme sarcasm.)

"On the Long Island Expressway, there are lanes going east, lanes going west, and lanes going straight to hell," says a voiceover at the beginning of "L.I.E." the movie. Marketed as a blow for free speech, the unrated film has been acclaimed for its pederast with a heart of gold, played by Brian Cox. On the L.I.E., at a rest stop, the pederast cruises boy prostitutes. As in Hollander's novel, Long Island itself plays a main character, a wasteland of suicidal children and immoral adults. 'Tis a pity the movie's been celebrated for its flirting perversions and not its far more daring touches. First, deviant lust is sublimated (thankfully) as better angels prevail and the pederast becomes an accidental father-figure to the teenaged Howie. Second, Howie returns the favor by reciting for the older man some lovely and touching verse, written for his dear mother--who, in a fatal overdose of symbolism, died in a traffic accident on the L.I.E.

The counties and shoreline that gave America such striking personalities as Billy Crystal, Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, Ray Romano, Bob Costas, and so many others remain a proving ground for cynical young talent. In both "L.I.E."s, human nature shrinks to express authorial contempt for all the towns east of Queens. Long Island's sophistication, its sleepy, welcoming northern shore, its hilarious scandals, its celebrity enclaves, its marrow of second and third-generation white-flighters--all this exciting variety has turned mealy and predictable in the hands of a couple of locals embarrassed by their hometowns.

For proud Long Islanders, however, things may be looking up. With Elian, elections, and Anthrax, Florida has put together a very credible challenge for the nation's crown of scorn.

David Skinner, assistant managing editor, grew up off exit 31 of the Long Island Expressway.