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Review: Matthew Specktor’s new novel brilliantly dissects Hollywood

The title of Matthew Specktor’s sprawling, ambitious second novel, American Dream Machine, refers to the name of a Hollywood talent agency that’s at the core of the book, but it also refers to the Hollywood dream factory in general, an entire industry devoted to grabbing hold of as much of the national (and now international) imagination as it can and squeezing out of it every last dram of profit. In its understanding of Hollywood’s meretriciousness, in its emotional intelligence about how the factory destroys the managers who run the place, in its analytical ballsiness, in its sheer knowledge of how the town works, American Dream Machine belongs on that small shelf of important American fiction (Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Pat Hobby Stories, West’s The Day of the Locust, Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Viertel’s White Heat, Black Heart and Tolkin’s The Player, and let’s throw in the odd DVD of Entourage) that sidesteps the temptation to exploit Hollywood for the sex, money and power themes that come so naturally to it, and treat it as the mythical expression of that beautiful, meretricious, dark-hearted beast, the American Dream.

If I’m making the book sound like hard work, I don’t mean to; it’s an exciting, heart-rending fictionalized journey through the 40 years of Hollywood history, from the period in the late 1960s when Hollywood was reeling from the collapse of the studio system and the countercultural heroes who were suddenly all the rage, to the 1980s and 1990s, when talent agencies, not movies studios, became the town’s true power haunts. Hollywood figures — George Clooney, Martin Scorsese, Albert Finney, Danny DeVito — drift through the book in subtle cameos, and many of the novel’s minor characters seem modeled on real producers, actors and studio execs. (Rodeo Drive, and maybe the corridors of Entertainment Tonight, will be buzzing about this book for weeks.) All the locales you might expect show up — the Polo Lounge, a Malibu beach, studio offices in Century City and Beverly Hills, sun-dazzled trips up Pacific Coast Highway, unreal-looking studio lots — giving Specktor a chance to demonstrate his enviable flair for bringing to life places and images that have grown threadbare from overexposure.

This is an insider’s novel, to be sure — Specktor was to this particular manor born (his father is a major Hollywood talent agent) and he has worked for studios and as a screenwriter — but it is blessedly bigger than that. Pauline Kael once called Hollywood movies “our national theater”; Specktor’s verdict is harder, more technological: Hollywood is a contraption wired to spit out dreams, the content of which don’t mean shit as long as they bring in the benjamins. But what finally interests him is how that machine sucks the souls of the men and women who make the movies. And that’s something he explores with great compassion.

At the novel’s emotional center is the irrepressible Beau Rosenwald, one of ADM’s founding agents, a 250-pound chunk of walking Id whose instinct for the deal is as killer as his desire for women, Rolexes and that aphrodisiac that comes from dining at the town’s finest restaurant with the town’s biggest star. Only Beau isn’t all aggressive ambition — he’s a shark with a heart, someone who will humiliate an underling in a meeting, then call her later with an effusive apology; someone who will mourn the death of his young daughter with Old World wailing; someone who will supplement his penchant for making the worst kind of crapola — his specialty is family movies starring animals — with passion to make, say, Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors. Sentimental, prone to nasty bits of acting out, doped-up on anti-depressants, doting to one of his sons while all but ignoring another, he’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, as the old Kris Kristofferson song goes, a life force careening reckless and doomed toward the novel’s conclusion.

His agency counterpart is Williams Farquarsen, reality principle to Beau’s pleasure principle, elegant, brilliant and cool — a family man with a huge secret that slowly, then quickly (in a great harrowing scene that climaxes the novel) brings home the truth of how modern Hollywood steals the souls of even of its most successful of men.

Paralleling this story of these two industry powerhouses is the story of their three sons, one of whom, Nate, who narrates the novel, doesn’t learn the truth of his paternity till he’s in his teens and, as a result, forever feels like an outcast. The novel is riddled with secrets, deceptions, dodges, feints, disappearances and loss, loss, loss, and it is Nate’s task to sort it all out. Specktor’s decision to have Nate tell the story is an interesting one: Nate narrates many events that he couldn’t possibly know anything about, meaning he is inventing as much as he’s reporting, though he presents what he is inventing exactly as if it really happened (Fitzgerald struggled with the same problem in The Love of the Last Tycoon.) For purists of the novel form, this would be a problem, but this is Hollywood (not to mention American fiction post-Reality Hunger) and Hollywood is one big jumble of invention mixed with reality, anyway. As he makes clear in the epiphanic final paragraph, Specktor has woven Nate’s and the town’s dreamlife into the very fabric of his storytelling, and the result is a profound, heart-stirring tale — comic, melodramatic, tragic, too — that brings the dark heart of Hollywood desire into the brilliant pitiless light of the California sun.

AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE Matthew Specktor, Tin House Books, 464 pages