cover image O, Africa!

O, Africa!

Andrew Lewis Conn. Random/Hogarth, $25 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8041-3828-4

With this ingeniously contrived, cleverly told, if ultimately overstuffed tale of the early days of filmmaking, Conn (author of P.) focuses on early-20th-century American pop culture. The novel opens in 1928 Coney Island as Brooklyn-born brothers Izzy and Micah Grand (né Grombotz) film a comedy starring Henry Till (a fictionalized version of Harold Lloyd) and featuring Babe Ruth. In debt to Harlem gangsters, and facing competition from the newly introduced talkies, Micah, the randy, risk-taking director, and Izzy, a sensitive cameraman, travel to Africa to make the first movie entirely shot on that continent. Assisted by dwarf camera operator Oscar Spiro and native translator Mtabi, the brothers befriend an African king and move into his village. Disaster ensues: the village’s natural harmony is destroyed; beloved friends die; a hippopotamus eats the last reels of film. Conn falls short of his novel’s high ambitions, tackling without illuminating themes of racism and cultural difference. But his novel’s finest moments, including a description of the first Academy Awards and a glimpse of the inspiration for King Kong, demonstrate that Conn can capture the creative chaos of movies with a knowledgeable and resonant voice. Agent: Bonnie Nadell, Hill Nadell Literary Agency. (June)