Book Excerpt: A Plastic Surgeon Gets in Over His Head in ‘Plastic’

In Frank Strausser's new novel, a face-fixer to the stars goes to work on a pop star, and discovers a sinister motive.

Hollywood satire meets crime fiction – an extremely Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-style combination of two of our favorite flavors – in Plastic (out now from Rare Bird Books), the new novel by Frank Strausser. It tells the story of Previn, a fabulously successful Los Angeles plastic surgeon, who is hired to undo the damage done to a nineteen-year-old pop star after disfiguring assault. But a simple job gets complicated with Previn realizes his job is not to fix her looks; it’s to help cover up the crime. Here’s a trailer:

We’re pleased to present this excerpt.

FROM “PLASTIC”

A ray of sunlight extended its beam through the glass ceiling of the conservatory, a faint dust making the beam seem stronger as it passed over one translucent petal. There were other petals, then folds and a jumble of clear material. The disorder of it was beautiful. The play of light. The hint of something solid behind it. Yet from where Previn stood, the bulb-like mass of plastic topping the tall pedestal in the center of the room quite obviously held a partially formed clay head. One of his many works of art, still taking shape. But the plastic that kept the clay from drying out also looked, in that moment, like a suffocation mask.

Previn ripped the plastic covering from the hunk of clay. Stepped back from her, he studied her, and then moved closer to begin. He delicately molded her cheekbones with his bare hands, but soon delicacy gave way and he began to tear at it with a ferocity that wasn’t him. The replay of Jake Blackburn’s desperate 911 call had played again and again in his head after Previn had read the phone transcript in an addendum to the autopsy. He could hear that famous voice. So strong in the movies. So rattled and faltering, “It’s my mother. I can’t…she’s not. Nothing!”

“Sir. What’s happening?” the 911 dispatcher had asked in her tired voice.

“She’s not breathing. Not moving. I can’t get anything.”

“She’s not breathing at all?”

“She had plastic surgery. She was recovering. You’ve got to get someone over here.”

“Do you know how to do CPR?” the dispatcher had asked.

Previn’s eyes fluttered as he tried to refocus on what was in front of him. He felt art was very much a part of his profession. On any other day, this’d be an almost spiritual outlet. But today, this female face that had been labored over with care and affection had suffered in his hands. So much so, he wanted to toss her to the floor.

The studio had been like a preserve, but he couldn’t overcome his stress even there with the work he most loved. He’d taken over a conservatory on the side of the house and made it his art studio. He liked the light that poured in from the giant windows, although flaming bottlebrush trees afforded a measure of relief from the sun. In an open antique cabinet and on top of it sat body parts in dry clay. A hand. An arm. A foot. Various models for larger works. And many female heads, including a thin one that was just a mask.

As Previn emerged from his studio, still wearing his smock, his hands covered in dried clay, he crossed paths with Helen, who was carrying a large cardboard box. She set it down near some others and with a black marker wrote, “Mine.”

He bit his tongue. Plenty had already been said in the twelve days since she’d announced her decision to walk out on their marriage.

“You don’t usually go to the studio this time of day,” she said. “It’s peaceful.”

Helen tried to pin down the box to tape it shut. She looked up at him for help, but he walked off. He didn’t like behaving like an ill-tempered brat, but breakups brought out the worst in everyone. He kept thinking she’d change her mind. If he didn’t help her pack, if the process was slowed, even a little, things might change. He never knew with Helen.

Surely this wasn’t her.

As he passed through the foyer, he caught himself in the mirror. He needed a haircut in the worst way, but then he always did. At forty-six, he still had an athletic build, something achieved with the help of regular yoga classes and a personal trainer. His actor patients had to work at looking attractive. As their surgeon and consultant, he felt he was under no less an obligation to look great. It was part of the job. He might have added that it was his life. All of this was lost on Helen.

She was very much her own person. From the first, she’d always carried a few extra pounds. She wasn’t fat. She was healthy. And he loved her for it. She never felt like she had anything to prove. In Previn’s world, he was forever being asked to pass women through a cookie cutter, to make them all the same. Not Helen. She wouldn’t have wanted her plastic surgeon husband to do a thing for her. And thank God for that. One woman in this town who didn’t. Striking and unconventional, she wore a lot of green, which always set off her red hair. Perhaps if she hadn’t been the fiery beauty she was, she might have been more sympathetic to the women who sought out his help and had a greater appreciation for his work. There was no figuring it.

He walked out onto the veranda of his white, bold, angular home with a soaring entranceway of glass. He’d just put his hands under the hose when he looked up to see über-agent and Hollywood power broker Richard Barone’s black Bentley roll up his drive. Previn whipped off his smock and braced himself for what promised to be an unpleasant meeting.

Moments later, he ushered Barone into his house. Stacks of boxes were everywhere. The living room was disordered but at least the furniture was still there. Barone didn’t seem interested in the chaos around him. Previn knew better than to attempt an explanation. To do so would have felt altogether too flippant given the gravity of the matter that had brought them together.

Barone’s fingers tapped on the autopsy report. Tap. Tap. Tap.He looked like a lawyer. The overpacked leather briefcase. The gold- rimmed glasses. The starched white cotton shirt. The dark blazer. But this being Hollywood, it also seemed a little affected, as if he wanted everyone to know his bloodlines were pure Clarence Darrow.

Standing beside a large contemporary still life of a bedroom interior, which had already been taken down from the wall, Previn waited impatiently for Barone to speak.

“He wanted to buy his mom plastic surgery for her birthday,” Barone said. “To make her feel young again. Ironic, huh? He didn’t know where to send her. That’s when I said, there’s this man…”

“I’m sorry, Richard. I am.”

Excerpted from “Plastic” by Frank Strausser, out now from Rare Bird Books. All rights reserved.