Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review: This Book Will Save Your Life, by A.M. Homes

In This Book Will Save Your Life, 911 returns a call, leaving a message on the main character’s voicemail. Can this happen? Does it matter? That’s the kind of book this is. Acts of god abound, yet somehow, and I’m still trying to figure this out, Homes makes it seem like it can. And makes you wish it happened to you.

Richard is divorced, retired early, fit, living a comfortable, secluded life in the hills above Los Angeles. Every morning he walks the treadmill in his living room while he checks the latest numbers from Wall Street, shifting his money around. He’s rich, and this is all he wants out of life. He has a woman who cleans his house and assists him. He has a nutritionist who brings him a week’s worth of healthy meals so he doesn’t have to leave his house. And he doesn’t, for weeks at a time.

This Book Will Save Your Life introduces the consistent sameness of Richard, spins him around as if readying for a piñata slaughter, and pitches him off in unforeseen directions. Random acts begin with a sinkhole in Richard’s lovely green yard. Then he experiences a pain, forcing him to dial 911 for help, and this introduces a series of events that takes him out of his house and beyond his comfort level.

Very quickly Richard meets an expansive cast of characters, each changing his life and opening up a horizon of possibility. There’s Cynthia, a woman he befriends after he finds her crying in the produce section. She’s miserable in her life as wife and mother. There’s Anhil, a Donut Depot proprietor who, Richard discovers, cherishes making quality donuts, driving fancy cars he can never afford, and spouts malapropisms like, “Make my words.” And Tad Ford, the movie star up the street who, when a horse gets stuck in the sinkhole, orders up a chopper, flies over with a harness, and lifts the horse to safety. This random but powerful act shines a strange spotlight onto Richard that follows him for the rest of the story.

He gets advice from doctors and friends. It’s the literary version of the Jim Carrey movie, Yes Man. Richard, instead of just letting his money make money, starts saying yes. Yes, he will go on a retreat to meditate. Yes, he’ll let Anhil drive his Mercedes. Yes, he’ll move to Malibu for the summer while his house gets worked on (sinkholes really screw up your land when you live on an L.A. hillside). He starts to want to change people’s lives, like people have affected his.

If all this sounds like a sappy, sentimental Lifetime movie (if they made movies for men), it’s not. A.M. Homes, author of the scabrous The End of Alice and the execrable Music For Torching (sorry, but I couldn’t get past page 30), lightens her touch and opens her window upon L.A., giving me one of the most enjoyable reads in a long time. I didn’t want the book to end. When does that happen? Seldom. The last time for me was with The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and before that, maybe going all the way back to The Corrections. I grew to enjoy not just all the characters, minor and major, but their travails.

The book is a happy amalgam of concurrent events. Homes follows Richard as he drives around Los Angeles, visiting Anhil at the Donut Depot, watching the till as Anhil drives in his car. After moving to Malibu, Richard does things like adopt a beach dog, befriend his crusty old neighbor who turns out to be a brilliant, famous writer (hey, why not?), shield Cynthia from her increasingly cruel husband while she starts her new autonomous life, and prepare for the visit of Ben, his long estranged son driving West to work as a summer intern at a talent agency. Thinking of his son sets off memories of his marriage, his wife, his parents, how he was never there for Ben. He wants to change, to make amends, to do nice things for people like buy them new cars or pay for hip replacements.

Weaved throughout the narrative are seemingly unrelated random events. Posters are stapled to telephone poles. Have you seen this? they ask. Photographers stand across the Pacific Coast Highway from his Malibu house. Patches of tar seep into the basement of Anhil’s Donut Depot. Fires flare unexplained in garbage cans up and down Richard’s street. A saber-toothed cat has been spotted in the city. While driving on a freeway, Richard decodes an SOS flashed by the break lights of the car ahead of him. He thinks someone is locked in the trunk and forces the car off the road. Turns out, there was a woman locked in the trunk. He saves the day and becomes one of those civic saviors (think Tom Cruise saving a woman from drowning) who piques the public’s collective interest. Thankfully, Homes doesn’t have Richard go on the Today Show to talk about it.

The randomness of events could be cloying and tricky in another story, but here it is the story, serving the overarching purpose of the character. Homes hints to deeper meanings, webbed together just out of sight. Unlike, say, Joe Meno’s Boy Detective Fails, where random unnatural events begin (buildings disappearing) only to peter out for no reason. For This Book Will Save Your Life, it’s another part of Richard’s journey of growth. It’s not to be taken too seriously, and is played for gentle laughs. Richard takes it in stride, and so should the reader.

There’s repetition in action, in everything being so random, but the constant change of locations, short scenes, action interspersed with true dialogue, and a revolving door of minor characters to interact with Richard keep the pace snappy and the mind wanting to know what happens next. Homes doesn’t let things settle, or the characters to get too analytical.

If I have one complaint it’s that the timeline gets a little blurred toward the end. It’s supposed to take place over a summer. We see the beginning of the summer. And then, before we know it, Ben is headed back east to start his senior year in high school. A little jolting. Maybe I didn’t read close enough to pick up the marks of time passing. I’m picky about segues and timelines. Hold my hand just a touch more without being obvious, don’t let me flounder in timeless fictive waters, keep me grounded.

How do you wrap up such a story, so many characters? I like a congealing at the end. Save vagueness and lyricism for short stories. If I’ve committed to read a 372 page novel, I better come away with some knowledge of how the characters finished. Or didn’t finish. And I get it here, even though the swift ending barely avoids a disaster movie/act of god crutch. Richard’s initial pain and sinkhole were merely narrative devices to drive him out of the house. Nothing is really explained fully, and nothing needs to be. It’s all metaphors, physical manifestations of upheaval, the turmoil in Richard’s life. And even though he ends up floating in the ocean, pieces of his Malibu rental around him, the smoke from wildfires clearing out in the morning sun, he is, finally, not alone.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Evening with Thievery Corporation

Thievery Corporation came to Boston on Tuesday night, the third show for the bigger, newer, Boston House of Blues. Taking over the former Avalon space, House of Blues now offers a venue for midsize audiences. Upon walking into the music hall, it was evident that the place fills the same footprint as Avalon, with the stage at one end in front of a large general admission viewing area, with a bar on the left.

The place was pretty full by the time Liz and I made it through security (yes, those are keys in my pocket, and no I'm not happy to see you). I bought a $6.50 beer and Liz a $8.00 mixed drink. Note to self: next time, beer up before you leave the house. We walked around and it was kind of overwhelming. Bodies everywhere. We're used to the relatively intimate confines of TT the Bear’s, The Middle East, or even The Paradise. We walked up to the second floor balcony and staked claim at the very back, with a good stage sight line. Around 9:30 Thievery Corporation filtered onto the stage.

I say filter because they travel heavy: eight band members and a revolving troop of six or seven singers, rappers, and this guy who did a lot of shouty sing-talking. Formed by D.C. buds Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, Thievery uses multi-cultural musicians and singers to mix up an exotic goulash of globe-hopping sounds that conjure a set by a peripatetic DJ. All melded together with a jazzy, Brazilian, and dub electronic beat, combined with exotic instruments like the sitar.

On tour, Rob and Eric stand center stage, up behind turntables and (I'm sure, although I couldn't see it) requisite computer dials and knobs and monitors. Flanked on their right by trumpet and sax players and a bongo player. To their left a percussionist and guitarist/sitarist. And the hard-to-miss whirling dervish bass player, roaming the stage like a rubber band with long hair.

I never expected to see Thievery Corporation live. On vinyl they come across as a very well mannered (and very political) lounge act, leaders in world Buddha-bar, ultra-chill music. Stuff your mother wouldn't mind (or Liz's mother; she's a fan). So live I knew they ran the risk of coming across kind of meh. To help combat this possibility come the aforementioned traveling roadshow of vocal talent. Each song followed basically the same rhythmic template, but with different singers. This made the night more interesting, if kind of like a variety show. The horn section added a vital, organic sound. The bongos and percussionist were mostly lost in the mix, the guitar and sitar showing tame flourishes. The sound was extremely bass heavy, especially during the first few songs. Heavy bass is appropriate for a rhythm-heavy sound. And that's what Thievery Corporation boils down to: a smooth dance band. This is not a bad thing for Thievery lovers. You know a Thievery song when you hear it. You also know a song by another artist that's been Thieveryized (remixed, rerecorded, reconditioned). Thievery do their one song very well.

One singer introduced The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a song the band co-write with David Byrne, who sang it on The Cosmic Game album. The guest singer started in on the song. He was fine, putting his own gruff spin on the vocals. But at one point he ran behind the band's riser and came around the other side. A move David Byrne used when Talking Heads toured in 1983. The tour that was used for their Stop Making Sense album and film. And this was not the first moment I thought of Talking Heads while watching Thievery.

Talking Heads also used world beats and musicians. The singer's nod to Talking Heads was apt, but it also pointed out what was missing from the night's performance: spontaneity. Thievery was missing one crucial element that would have made the band sound more, well, like a band: a live drummer. Not every band needs one (Depeche Mode) and some are better off without one (Big Black). But the entire Thievery show was performed to the aural backdrop of a pre-recorded drum sequence. This necessitated a coordination of the rest of the band to hit their respective marks, with no room for error. Or spontaneity.

The music went off without a hitch as far as I could tell, so things have certainly come a long way from Depeche Mode's 1986 Wang Theater performance when a malfunctioning floppy disk miscued a few songs and made the band's live limitations obvious. Seeing Talking Heads live in 1983 was like getting hit on the head with a new way of performing live, with an extended family of musicians whose love for the music and, for the most part, each other shined through, all anchored by Chris Frantz's drumming. This isn't really a complaint for Thievery necessarily, just a gentle suggestion to bands that augment their sound with turntablism, to try an organic live drummer and gauge the difference.

It was getting late and they hadn't played Liz's favorite song, The Richest Man in Babylon. Also, I had expected them to play Lebanese Blonde, the track that had made it onto the Garden State soundtrack, but maybe they were saving it until the end. We decided to skip out early. We walked back downstairs where it was twice as loud. We really enjoyed the show. And it was fun to see the new House of Blues. Recession or no, Boston seems ready to embrace the another place to see a show. Thanks Thievery. See you next tour.

Here's a live clip (not from last night's show):

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Culture of Books

As much as I love reading books, I love buying books. And browsing for books. And looking at them, and, yes, smelling them. New books, anyway. Used books have their appeal as well. My father's a used book dealer. Summers, he would come home late Saturday mornings after hitting yard sales and book sales to go through his boxes of new used books. If any were musty, he would set them outside, fanned, so that they could air out in the Cape Cod afternoon.

I often went with him on his hunts for good used books. To church basements and strangers' driveways. I poked through the flats of paperbacks and hardcovers, editions both first and book club. I looked for comic books and movie tie-in books early on, then later, novels and books on filmmaking and photography. Accompanying my father on these mornings made me realize that he lived and worked in a milieu that he loved. And whether he meant to do it or not, he passed down his love of books to me.

All this brings me to last weekend when Liz and I drove up to Portland, ME to look around. It was a quiet Sunday, but I found two bookstores open. While Liz was off to neighboring yarn shops, I browsed around in Longfellow Books, a progressive independent store that sold mostly new books, but also carried a selection of used books. There I bought a book I've had my eye on for a few months, Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, which is a revision and re-imagining of three of his earlier connected novels, Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone, that take place "...on the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century." The book won the National Book Award last year. I've already got a big book in my queue (2666), but I'm a sucker for epic books and lost (or found) classics.

After Longfellow's, I found a book store called Yes Books, selling used and rare books. The store was all narrow, tall stacks of used paperbacks and hardcovers. I immediately found the fiction section and poured over half the hardcovers and all of the paperbacks.

During my book searches I release internal radar which branches outward from somewhere behind my eyes, parsing all spines in view for that perfect combination of longing, condition, history, and edition. Some used bookstores and book sales give off the spent karma of the picked-through, the deserted, the Oprah-certified bestsellered. Then there are those that exude a promise of editions long out of print, of classics ready to be found, of barely used books for over half the original cover price. As I scanned the Yes Books' stacks, I felt I was getting close to finding at least one book to buy. I kept seeing interesting books that I would have bought if I hadn't already owned them. Plus some close calls and runners up. I finally found two titles worthy of my interest, both monetary and literary.

First, something I had recently just heard of called Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. Published originally in 1970, this was the reprint from '99, with a back cover pull-quote from David Foster Wallace, and a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen. A lost classic, introduced by one of my favorite still my heart. The description heralds it as, " of the most dazzling examples of the storyteller's craft in postwar American literature..." Which war? Doesn't matter. I'm there, first in line, tickets bought online months ago.

The second book I had eyed when it came out in 2008, a paperback original called Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski. Graphic novel-worthy cover illustration, promising a silly premise done up in serious blood-red splatterpunk. "A hot shot of adrenaline straight to the neural plexus," shouts a blurb on the back cover. Okay, I'll bite. I always like a spot of fictional blood lust. Modern-day noir riffs in the corporate workplace. I can relate.

I'm sated. For now. I doubt I'll finish this new round of books before another round makes it through the door. But so what? Reading's not always the point.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Vestron Pictures

A couple years after I graduated from the University of Bridgeport with a BFA in cinema I worked for a post production facility in Stamford, CT called Postworks. I held a few positions at Postworks; as a production assistant on myriad corporate and industrial videos, and later, as an office assistant. This included a surreal stint as a PA on a string of music videos produced for the WWF, each featuring one of their wrestlers. This is where I got to witness Hulk Hogan lip synch next to Rick Derringer on Derringer’s remake of his classic Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.

The WWF was based in Stamford. Another entertainment company based in Stamford in the mid- to late-eighties was Vestron Pictures. You may or may not remember Vestron. They were a motion picture distributor that struck oil when they produced and distributed Dirty Dancing in 1986. Overnight, they went from a tiny home video distributor to a (relatively) major player in motion picture production and distribution. In other words, Dirty Dancing made them buckets of money. And they figured they must know what they were doing and decided to make a bunch more movies. With bigtime actors and budgets much bigger than Dirty Dancing’s.

My first brush with Vestron greatness was when I made a delivery to their offices. They had rented one or more floors of a downtown Stamford building and populated it with a troop of happy, well-adjusted young people. I wondered how they got their jobs. Working for a movie company in Connecticut. That’s what I wanted. I don’t know what they were doing up there, amid the Dirty Dancing posters that lined the walls or the cardboard cutouts of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Marketing? Talking budgets and locations? Distribution deals and foreign rights? The guys who I worked for knew the guy who started Vestron back in the day (early eighties) and the guy threw them a little work. It was my job to pick up and drop off parts of this work.

After hitting it big, Vestron was throwing money as fast as it was deposited into their gold-lined, Dirty Dancing coffers at filmmakers, crews, writers, big names actors, and actual directors, cranking out what ended up being one of the strangest, unbalanced, miscalculated attempts at decent American moviemaking ever. All apologies to those involved. But, let’s face it; Criterion ain’t knocking themselves out raiding the film canisters of history to do a complete restoration of, say, Anthony Michael Hall’s curio known as A Gnome Named Gnorm (aka Upworld).

In those video dubs that I struck, I witnessed Vestron’s catalogue of films made during their brief but tasty tenure of 1986 (or so) to 1991. There was the rough cut (no music, no sound effects, lots of dead air on the soundtrack) of the Dennis Hopper directed, Jodie Foster starring dud Backtrack (aka Catchfire, aka Do it the Hard Way). Long, boring, silly, faux noir. Poor Jodie Foster and her co-stars Dean Stockwell, John Turturro, and Vincent Price (?!?!). Out in the desert (New Mexico?) enacting Hopper’s own little Apocalypse Now. Released in theaters? Maybe, but I don’t remember it. On IMDB there are two directors listed, Hopper and Alan Smithee

How about the Class of 1999. “It's 1999. School is a warzone. The latest in automatic weapons are the teachers.” Hey, this one looked pretty good. Total exploitation, lots of gratuitous violence, and some decent actors like Malcolm McDowell, Stacey Keach, and Pam Grier. This was a sequel to Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 (much more fun and prescient) and here was Lester back to do it all over again. The movie looked dark and skuzzy, but I figure that’s the look they were going for.

There was Dream a Little Dream. Starring Coreys Feldman and Haim. Silly story, lame special effects. And God Created Woman, the Roger Vadim-directed remake of his iconic sixties movie, now starring Rebecca De Mornay (!?!?). Steel Dawn, which reunited Swayze with the distributor that made him world-wide famous. But this time he played a character named Nomad in “…a post-apocalyptic world, where a warrior wandering through the desert comes upon a group of settlers who are being menaced by a murderous gang…”

The movies weren’t all clunkers. Actually, looking through their IMDB page, I’m pretty impressed with some of the movies Vestron was associated with. They distributed foreign-made films in the U.S., including a few late-eighties Ken Russell flicks. There were independent-style movies like the low-key, character study Anna, with Sally Kirkland, who was nominated for best actress. Sincere dramas like Michael Hoffman’s Promised Land, John Huston’s The Dead, and Love Hurts with Jeff Daniels. Quirky comedies like Parents, Earth Girls Are Easy, and something called Twister, starring Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, and William S Burroughs (!?!?). Let’s not forget the money-draining machines like C.H.U.D. II - Bud the C.H.U.D., Slaughter High, Little Monsters (the Fred Savage/Howie Mandel thing, sold off to UA when Vestron started going downhill), and Nightforce, with Linda Blair, Chad McQueen, and James Van Patten.

But, let’s get back to the case of Anthony Michael Hall and Upworld (the title when I saw the dailies). Upworld was one of the last flicks Vestron put the money up for, and is emblematic of why they lost their shirt. The movie is directed by Stan Winston, a special effects guru from Aliens, Terminator 2, and Iron Man among many others. And starred an established actor and a cute cuddly character. So, really, how could this fail? Here’s the problem with Upworld: Anthony Michael Hall plays his character (a homicide detective who teams up with a gnome named Gnorm to find a killer) straight. A noble effort, and the only way a decent actor could go with the material. So the movie’s story concerns a cute alien-looking gnome, a murder mystery, and a cop drama all in one. It works on none of these levels.

With Upworld, I sat and watched all the footage I could. I was ostensibly ‘monitoring’ the quality of the dubs. The dailies (all the uncut camera footage, most of which you never see in a finished film) are priceless. There’s poor AMH trying to act with a gnome, nothing more than a kid in a suit I’m guessing. After each take AMH broods, obviously going for that method-school of acting-with-a-gnome thing. When he screws up a line, he says he wants to go again, wants to get it right. He‘s trying so hard to make a good movie, yet he must have known this was not to be. Not only another nail in the burnished coffin of his once-sparkling movie career, but that of Vestron as well.

Toward the end of the dailies, AMH shoots a night sequence during which you can hear in the unpolished footage the constant racket of the generators they use to run lights on location. It’s a physical and emotional scene. Something’s going wrong, either technical or performance-wise, and Winston calls for take after take. I imagine Winston was more concerned about the effects and technology than the performances.

Finally, obviously exhausted from the night shoot and the strain of carrying this questionable movie, AMH snaps. Flubbing a line and stopping a take, he breaks down and shouts at anybody close enough to hear about the absurdity and degradation of having to act alongside a fucking gnome. And I’m guessing, though he doesn’t say it out loud, the pressure of working for a studio that’s going down the tubes.

I delivered the dubs of the Upworld dailies to the Vestron offices. I should have called all the Vestron employees responsible for any decisions on any level to gather in a conference room, and shown them the footage to see if they could figure out what was wrong with this picture.

In another couple years Vestron was done. They’d lost all their money, packed up house, and had a liquidation sale where they sold off all video rights to their movies to other distributors. But, Dirty Dancing lives on, with a sequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and now as a musical, selling out all performances in Boston before heading to Broadway. As an old boss of mine used to say, “It’s only a movie.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Writing Outlines

I’m working on two outlines. Not the kind of outlines you write while the manuscript is in progress or after it’s complete and you want to send to agents and publishers. These are for me to wrap my mind around novels yet to be written. One is for a new novel that I’ve been making notes about since 2005 and just haven’t pulled the trigger on yet. The other is a proposed rewrite of “American Standard,” the last novel I workshopped with Ms. X
at Grub Street.

So why do this? Doesn’t this tamp the creative magic at time of inception? Meaning, don’t us writers just sit down to a blank monitor and just go to town? Maybe. Sometimes. But usually not. I’ll jump into a short story without a plan, but at this stage in the novel game, I won’t start a novel without a pretty clear idea of the story I want to tell and the characters I need to populate it with. I find that at this outline/pre-writing stage, I can get as creative as I want, coming up with any and all scenarios to try them on like shoes looking for the best fit or perfect Steve Madden knockoff. I won’t end up using all the ideas, scenes, or even the characters I plan ahead for. I also don’t let myself stay confined to the numbered steps of the outline after the novel-writing starts. If it turns out that Andrew was really abducted by little green men from Uranus, then maybe it’s best for the integrity of the story.

For the new novel, I’m creating characters and their backgrounds, figuring out where they are in life right now, where they want to go, and what’s holding them back. How they fit in to the story, or rather how the story evolves around them (I suppose that happens concurrently). One technique I picked up from my film school screenwriting teacher for getting to know your characters is to write a scene from each character’s perspective about the day before your story starts. What do your characters do when they’re at work? How do they treat their co-workers, and how are they treated back? Are they chronically late for work or compulsively early? Do they take two hour lunches on the clock or work through lunch? What do they do on Sunday mornings? Go to church or sleep in? Wake in a Dumpster or head out for brunch with high school buddies? These details you unearth are telling and prophetic. If they never make the final cut of your novel, they still inform it and help you to know your characters. When I’m done with the outlines, I will write these character portraits.

The second outline is for American Standard. Why an outline for a novel that I’ve already got in first draft form? Based on feedback from the workshop and from other readers, I’ve decided to scrap the characters as they currently stand, and approach them and the story from another angle. The main character is now younger, he’s not going through what could be considered a mid-life crisis. He’s no longer in love with his cousin (oy!), and he also makes more boneheaded moves which, this time around, he has to find his way out of for redemption’s sake, and hopefully the love of a good woman. This version has more of an arc. The main character starts off a decent guy, gets sucked down into a quagmire of moral ambiguity and questionable behavior. Hopefully by the end he’s made some strong decisions and comes around to fix what he done broke. Figure out what he really wants in life. It sounds mundane, but would it help if I mentioned that he’s a pornographer? Moral grey areas and ambiguity abound. See, rise and fall and rise. Hopefully.

Two outlines. Two nascent novels. Let the games begin.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Writing Group Redux

Which means that I’ve joined a writing group. It’s been about ten years since I’ve been part of a group that met consistently. In the mid ‘90s I joined my first one. We started out at the Barnes & Noble in Burlington (the old location). We met every two or three weeks. Eventually they kicked us out because one of our members started answering their phone when the employees weren’t quick enough (hey, it was annoying!). We continued on, meeting at a member’s house in Belmont. We would all bring in something to hand out each meeting, if we had something ready. A short story or a chapter—nothing very long. Also, one person’s work was read aloud by another member of the group. I really liked this as it was insightful to hear somebody read your words, your dialogue, infusing your sentences with their own cadence. Writing mistakes and awkward phrasings are easier to pick up when interpreted aloud.

That group lasted for a few years and at the time I was very prolific, writing almost one new story for each meeting. Not all gems, but it was a great exercise. One of the stories was published in a small literary journal out of Los Angeles, Lynx Eye Quarterly and recently republished in the Grub Street 10th anniversary anthology Hacks.

A few years after the demise of that group, I started a group with some fellow writers I met at my first Grub Street class, Ten Stories in Ten Weeks with instructor Rusty Barnes. We got along well and felt we were at the same writing level. (This is clutch to forming a strong group—you don’t want to constantly hold a newbie’s hand; conversely you don’t want to be constantly left behind, feeling out of the loop. You need to find a comfortable middle ground.) Hours before our first scheduled meeting, two of the five members bailed. The three remaining writers met. It was a relaxing, productive few hours, but we were never able to decide on a good time to meet again and it fizzled out before it really got going.

My new group contains a revolving 12 members, all current or former acolytes of Ms. X. She remains with us in spirit, tenor, and good humor. One or two people will hand out at a time, for a total of a hundred pages every two weeks. This is fine as it gives me time to come up with something to bring in. We plan to not just read and critique work, but also hold informative discussions about real-world publishing topics such as how to market yourself, how to target the right agent/publisher, and write a memorable synopsis. Some of us may go in on a collective blog together as well.

My goals for the group are to add to my ever-growing database of publishing information and writing and revising knowledge. For my critiques I will bring a revised chapter, a finished short story, or possibly the beginning of a new novel if I have anything decent by then. I have a couple months to pull something together.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

First Draft Theater 2

First draft theater presents the second in a series of posts featuring a few pages of a first draft or a work in progress. (Check out the first here.) The following is the beginning of a story I've come back to a few times in the past year. Give it a read. Let me know what you think. Am I going to Hollywood? Or someplace even hotter? You decide.

Waiting for Hugo

Hugo aimed his manual camera out the drivers' side window of his 1986 Mustang. Though he had California plates, people always asked him where he was from. “Your car’s rusted,” they'd say. Cars don't rust in L.A. The Mustang was fine for just getting around but it was a lemon, in the shop every other month.

Hugo worked the lens and zoomed in for a close-up of the ranch house’s front windows. He tried to shoot fast but was dazzled by the bright orange curtains. He zoomed out and snapped a wide angle. The front of the house was overgrown with bushes and ivy. He had imagined a more streamlined environment, but he could work with it. He wondered if this was the Charles Manson house. He knew it was here in Laurel Canyon someplace, along a pleasant tree-lined street like this.

A woman came out of the house and walked down the driveway, watching him. She carried a tray.

Hugo hadn't planned on spying on this mid-century modern in the neighborhood where Manson did the deed. Lack of supplies had driven him out of his apartment; when he went to make coffee that morning he found his roommates had brewed the last of it. When he wasn't at his part-time temp job, he was home working on his screenplay. To write with any passion he needed coffee. With sugar if he could afford it. That meant a drive to Ralph's.

He had been ambitious when he left Kansas City and his tight-knit family and moved to Los Angeles. During his first year in L.A. he wrote a screenplay, a 150 page opus about a zoo of anthropomorphic animals that helps a lowly zoo employee outsmart the state lottery system. He was convinced it would get snapped up during an outrageously lucrative bidding war. Months were spent sending it to agencies and producers. He revised the script to make it a family-friendly PG-rated movie. When that didn’t work, it became an action movie, and finally he spun it as a hard-R suspense thriller. Nobody read it. When Hugo's passion for his sapient creatures dulled, he knew it was time to get busy on another screenplay.

At Ralph’s, Hugo walked the busy aisles, dropping essentials into his basket: a pound of Eight O’Clock coffee (cheap, but not the cheapest), a pound of sugar, wheat bread, baloney, macaroni loaf, Pepsi. At the checkout his card wasn’t accepted. Flushed, he had the girl put aside the sugar and the baloney then paid cash for the rest. Outside a man in a Nova with tinted windows tried to flag him over. "Hey buddy. You want a sandwich?" the man shouted to him. His face was beyond wrinkly, it was corrugated.

"I'm all set," Hugo said.

"Yeah? You look all set."

What did he need a sandwich for? Did he look like the kind of guy that would buy a sandwich out of a non-air conditioned car? Hugo drove onto Victory Blvd., realizing the sandwiches the guy was selling must have been drugs. He rolled down his windows. The dry air triggered his asthma and he started to cough but the wind cooled his hot skin. He hung a right, trying to remember all the drug dealer details so he could use him as a character in his script. His second screenplay. He got excited thinking about writing it and headed up into the hills of Laurel Canyon to carry out another errand.

His second screenplay concerned a tight-knit family living in a perfect Mid-Western suburb in the 1970's. The daughter gets pregnant and turns her middle-class family upside down. Hugo wanted pictures of a house to use as a model for the house his movie home. When he found the perfect house he would populate it with his characters like a life-sized dollhouse. Actual photos helped him visualize his family.

The woman walked into the road, ten feet from Hugo's Mustang. He slid his camera into his backpack. “It’s a public way,” Hugo said. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

The woman smiled and held her tray in front of her. She was tall and gangly; at one time she had probably been thin. Her hands looked swollen. He couldn't stop looking at her clown-sized digits. He could use that detail. The boyfriend, a drug dealer, dropped the Baggie of dope because of his huge meaty hands. On the tray were white bread sandwiches.

“Monty’s home. If you’d like to talk to him,” the woman said, taking another step toward the car. “I’m sure he’d be interested in what you have to say. I'm Eve. Eve Garland?”

Hugo started the Mustang and was about to put it in gear when he realized the woman had not told him to leave.

"What?" he said out the window. Eve Garland. That struck something familiar in his memory. She was an old actress. She had been in some B-movies. Maybe some minor TV roles. He recognized her. Just.

She looked toward the house then back to Hugo. Her smile changed from greeting to imploring. It would have been creepy or pathetic but Hugo found it more ingratiating than anything.

"Monty’s been waiting."

"I think you have the wrong—"


She was like a mother, her voice a little loud but caring; the sandwiches were cut into quarters and stacked in a circle like a Wonder Bread pyramid or a wedding cake for six year olds. Hugo wanted to cover them with plastic wrap in case a bird crapped on them or the wind tussled with tree-stuff and something landed from above. Or pollen. Was there pollen in L.A.?

"Follow me?" The woman walked back up the driveway then turned, waiting.

Hugo was the pathetic one in this strange, sudden scenario. In the three years since he lived in the Valley nobody had ever waited for him. He couldn’t get his phone calls returned; he couldn’t get the lowest-tiered producer to even open the envelope in which he mailed his screenplay, afraid of unsolicited hit movie ideas for fear of getting sued. When Hugo did solicit, sending query letters as feelers, he got no action. He tried personalizing the queries depending on which production company he approached. (I’m a big fan of your client Bruce Spunkmeyer. I believe my script, a cross between Die Hard and Madagascar, would be a perfect fit for MadCap Productions.) If he got any response at all it was always no.

But Eve Garland was telling him that Monty wanted to see him. Was Monty her husband? Maybe he was a producer or worked at a studio. He pulled his car into the driveway, locked it up, then decided to grab his backpack. Maybe he could take more pictures of the house. He followed Eve onto a stone walkway.

It was midday. The neighborhood was still. The woman pulled a ring of keys from a lime-colored apron and opened the front door. She had a light touch with those thick fingers. “How rude of me.” She turned and blocked the door. “You must be peckish after your drive. Sandwich?”

Hugo grabbed four triangle sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly. The quarter sandwiches created a whole one and he stood and ate. The sweet food was thrillingly familiar and set his stomach into a crescendo of gurgles.

“Thanks,” he managed.

"I'm so sorry I wasn't better prepared.”

Hugo followed her into a foyer that opened onto a wide sunken living room. The carpet was orange shag. The orange drapes, darker than the carpet, adorned all the windows. Sliding glass doors opened out onto a terrace and swimming pool. There was the hum of central air conditioning. It smelled musty but also like the scent of a flower Hugo couldn't place. But not an actual flower, but a powder derived from a flower. The furnishings looked ordered out of House Beautiful circa 1962. Nothing looked contemporary but was still pristine, as if the house had been kept in a hermetic time capsule.

That’s what he felt like he had walked into, a moment frozen in a different era; no questions asked, no reasons given. It was how he had originally hoped to be embraced by Hollywood’s decision makers and money providers. Hugo didn’t know what they expected of him. Would the real visitor drive up any minute? This could be an advantageous mistake. He needed contacts in the business; he had to make the most of it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book Review: Memorial, by Bruce Wagner

If I were a character in a Bruce Wagner novel, I would have been born and raised in Los Angeles. My mother, Marjorie, would have married twice—divorced once and widowed once—passing her old age year in relative comfort in tony Beverlywood. My sister, Joan, an also-ran architect, jealous of other architects of her generation, would be flipping out because she’s almost 40 and hasn’t achieved all she wants from her career or from men. My father, Ray, would have left this cuddly family unit when I was only a couple years old. And then there’s me, Chester, a forty-something location scout and relative loser, always seeking, never finding. If the above were so, then you could call my life Memorial.

We are introduced to this Los Angeles family as things begin to fall apart or come together, depending on your point of view. Chester gets taken in as the butt end of a reality show gotcha moment, caught on tape, getting physically banged up in the process. For the remainder of the book he pops pills to fight the pain and hires a pit bull lawyer who promises Chester he’ll wring the production company for all they’re worth. Joan sleeps with most of the men in her life, including the man her company is wooing to land a contract to design and build a memorial for his brother lost in the Asian Tsunami of 2004.

Meanwhile Marjorie gets scammed by a troop of ingenious grifters as they wring her for all she’s worth with a bogus state lottery shadow program called the Blind Sisters. Gullible and lonely (her kids only call when they’re looking for a handout) she willingly gives these very nice people who want to lavish her with secret lottery winnings all the information about her bank accounts and money up front in order to secure her place among the other secret winners. That’s just the beginning of poor Marj’s problems. Her devastating fall from grace is a cruel wonder to read.

While Marjorie is raked over the coals, her ex husband, whom she hasn’t seen since he left decades before, has gone through the trauma of having his City of Industry apartment mistaken for that of a drug dealer and invaded by police. In the process, his dog is shot. After the ordeal there are lots of apologies by all involved, his dog gets the best care, makes it through, and Ray ends up with a tasty settlement from the city.

So, lots of opportunity for a rather depressing story. But Wagner takes us into the cranium of these characters so absolutely that we don’t just witness their innocence (for the mother and father) and humor and pathos (for the kids) but we feel it absolutely. Wagner is masterful at spinning pages of internal strife and dialogue into gold blocks of black humor and endless pop culture references. Actually, he goes beyond references to show how actual behavior and thought patterns are predicated on the cultural environment.

Bruce Wagner has been writing about Hollywood and Los Angelinos denizens since the early nineties (and earlier?) when he published his first novel, Force Majeure, about an aspiring screenwriter who drives a limo for a living, a character who will do anything to get his stuff on screen and be a player in Hollywood. Wagner writes about the inner workings of his L.A. characters like no writer since possibly Nathaniel West—splayed and flayed in real-time, they swagger, discourse, screw, ingest drugs, screw over, and ultimately expect their due. And it should be said, the karma they put out comes back to them in grand ways. Generally, lots of humiliating situations ensue. I couldn’t get through Force Majeure. It was unrelentingly depressing and misanthropic. It also lacked what his later novels (including his cellular trilogy, I’ll Let You Go, I’m Still Holding, and I’m Losing You) abundantly enjoyed: a wicked, fun, spot-on sense of humor. The blacker the better.

Chester and Joan fight off their respective demons by fucking, doping, and spewing some of the foulest, racist, darkest humor I’ve probably ever read in a mainstream book. There are some images I wish I hadn’t come across. Yet everything mixed together—the bathos of Marjorie as a total victim; the tender, dopey father making gestures to reconnect to his original family; Joan discovering a strength and positive ferocity while becoming her mother’s only benefactor and protector; vapid, flailing Chester digging deep to finally overcome his fears and head off to India to search for an inner peace he’s canny enough to know he’ll never get in Los Angeles—all this crazy shit reduces like a surprisingly succulent stew from the disparate parts of a dozen stale Hollywood pitch meetings.

Death comes a calling, and India as country and symbol spins its web, as a real or fantasy destination for many of the characters. It’s this symbol of peace and healing that swirls out of the memorials for everyone lost in recent tragedies, both American and world-wide. It’s like Wagner has created this sour and sweet salve to rub on America’s collective, exhausted wounds.

Wagner’s prose is thick, and I’m always surprised at his savvy turns of phrase. While his characters, mostly Joan and Chester, spew long pages of venom and uncanny (sometimes unrealistic) insight into almost every corner of their psyche, there’s nothing boring about Memorial, and everything about it will stick with you. This novel was published in 2006, and it’s so timely that if you read it in another couple years, the pop references would seem stale, although they magically still hold up in February 2009. And his themes of human loss, family struggle and tragedy, of the haves and wish-I-hads, of endings and beginnings, never really go out of style.