Michael Friedman’s new book of fiction, Martian Dawn & Other Novels, is an omnibus volume that consists of a reissue of his hilarious 2006 cult novel Martian Dawn and two equally off-kilter new novels, Are We Done Here? and On My Way to See You. He may even have created a new literary form: the faux novelization of the lives of Hollywood stars.
My first novel, Martian Dawn, was my version of a Hollywood novel. In it Richard and Julia—modeled on Gere and Roberts and the millionaire and prostitute played by each in the Pygmalion update Pretty Woman— are a Hollywood couple navigating the tricky waters of stardom. The book is set in an alternative present in which Mars has already been colonized, and as the the plot unfolds they are called back to Mars to reshoot the ending of a botched science fiction film called Martian Dawn.
Why do we love Hollywood novels? Do we enjoy peering voyeuristically at deliciously depraved and demented behavior by modern-day gods? I don’t know why we wouldn’t. Or do we simply crave reassurance that movie stars aren’t really so different from you and me? Here are my votes for the ten best Hollywood novels. My informal taxonomy revealed that, as far as subject is concerned, Hollywood novels tend to fall into the following loose categories: moguls (Fitzgerald), divas (McCourt, Vidal), train wrecks (Stone, Didion), ingénues en route to stardom (Lambert), foolish dreams of being discovered (West, McCoy), and Brits who have had enough of our philistine ways and ersatz culture and return home to civilization (Waugh, Wodehouse). What else did I find? I got a charge out of some of the recurring motifs. The Chateau Marmont? Check. Sketchy sexual encounters? Check. Weary agents giving pep talks and playing shrink? Definitely. Dailies viewed by anxious producers or directors? Yes. Potential scripts looked over by finicky talent? Uh-huh. Studio commissaries full of stars? Of course. Ambitious newcomers molded by domineering Svengalis? Yep. Temperamental leads threatening to go off the reservation? I’m afraid so. Drunken excess? Check.
1. The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1941) - Fitzgerald modeled his novel’s hero, visionary studio head Monroe Stahr, on real-life mogul Irving Thalberg. The parallels between this book and The Great Gatsby are striking. Stahr, like Gatsby, is stuck in the past. In Stahr’s case, he tries to recapture the magic he experienced with his film star wife, Minna Davis, who has died before the action begins. And this book’s Nick Carraway-like narrator-observer is Cecilia Brady, an insider with a thing for Stahr. The plot is set in motion when a young beauty who is the spitting image of Minna is observed by Stahr floating through a flooded studio lot atop the giant head of the Goddess Siva that has come unmoored from its set. Though unfinished at Fitzgerald’s death, it’s a beautifully written book.
2. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939) - West turns a jaundiced eye on Hollywood in this book, and the result is nasty. Set in a seedy milieu on the fringes of the movie industry, the novel is populated by an unlikable assortment of lowlifes, call girls, vaudevillians, door-to-door salesmen, film extras, retirees, schemers, child actors, stage mothers, script writers and chumps. Main character Tod Hackett, a doltish Yale-educated artist, moves to Hollywood after being hired as an apprentice set designer. The book is famous for its powerful denouement, a riot outside a movie premiere in which the the flimsy dreams that have drawn the characters to Hollywood threaten to literally destroy them. But what really grabbed me was the wonderful extended set piece in which Tod stumbles onto a back lot during filming. With a light touch, West wryly evokes the hyper-reality of Hollywood in his description of a faux Battle of Waterloo.
3. I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy (1938) - This book has the jauntiness of a screwball comedy and is a lot of fun. I immediately fell for the sparkling, snappy dialogue. Ralph Carston, a handsome rube from Georgia, works as an extra in Hollywood and naively dreams of getting his big break as an actor despite overwhelming evidence that it will never happen. Mrs. Smithers, a wealthy socialite he meets at a party, deflowers him, turns him into a kept man and teaches him about the finer things in life. But being a gigolo is not for him, and he breaks free to once again pursue his dream.
4. Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged” by James McCourt (1984) - This is my favorite of McCourt’s novels. Diva Kaye Wayfaring, two-time Oscar nominee, wrestles with the tribulations of drawing something great from within to play the lead in her comeback film, Avenged. The book is actually a collection of four linked stories. I think of McCourt as a great prose stylist above all else, and I’m into the playful vibe of his work. Fans of the witty cult novel A Nest of Ninnies by James Schuyler and John Ashbery and of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Ronald Firbank will dig McCourt’s sensibility.
5. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948) - The Loved One was inspired by Waugh’s 1947 trip to Hollywood to negotiate the potential sale of film rights to Brideshead Revisited and socialize with the British expat community. An early scene is set in the English colony in Hollywood. Sir Francis Hinsley, onetime leader of the enclave and head script writer for Megalopolitan Pictures, has been reduced to working in its publicity department. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie is a well-off actor known for the swashbuckling roles of his youth.
“How are things at Megalo?” asked Sir Ambrose.
"Greatly disturbed. We are having trouble with Juanita del Pablo.”
"'Luscious, languid and lustful’?”
"Those are not the correct epithets. She is—or rather was—‘surly, lustrous and sadistic.’ I should know because I composed the phrase myself.”
The book’s title refers to the euphemism that the employees at Whispering Glades mortuary use to refer to the recently departed. Waugh’s sharp satire, wacky plot and dry wit in this short novel are, as always, a delight.
6. Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal (1968) - Vidal completely won me over with his novel’s delicious, sly humor and pitch-perfect tone. Imagine a slightly more elegant, modulated Mark Leyner monologue and you’ll capture something of the outrageous first-person narration by Myra (née Myron) Breckinridge.
But my immediate task is to impress upon you how disturbingly beautiful I am with large breasts hanging free, for I am wearing nothing but black mesh panties . . .
Gorgeous transsexual Myra Breckinridge is, as the puts it, “born to be star.” There is plenty of sex of various stripes. Myra is, it turns out, a thoughtful and knowledgeable student of forties films as well as a fan of the film critic Parker Tyler.
7. Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse (1936) - The Earl of Havershot is dispatched to Hollywood to rescue his cousin Egremont from the arms of an American temptress. In the process, an American starlet set her sights on the Earl, and she first accosts him on a cross-country train ride.
"That New York paper called you the Earl of Havershot. Is an Earl the same as a Duke?”
"Not quite. Dukes are a bit higher up.”
"Is it the same as a Viscount?”
"No. Viscounts are a bit lower down. We Earls rather sneer at Viscounts. One is pretty haughty with them, poor devils.”
The book is vintage Wodehouse—a hilarious, irresistible treat from a bygone era. And the book even has a strange plot strand involving the supernatural.
8. Children of Light by Robert Stone (1986) - I love this novel’s pacing and crisp dialogue; the deftness with which Stone draws his colorful minor characters; and the authority with which he handles the details of a film set. Divorced screenwriter, playwright and actor Gordon Walker is a major league coke addict, alcoholic and ladies man. Despite all good advice to the contrary, he insists on travelling from LA to the Mexico film set where his screenplay (an adaptation of the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin) is being shot to visit old flame Lee Verger, the movie’s schizophrenic star. You know it’s not going to be pretty, and it isn’t.
9. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970) - The book is for the most part narrated in the first person, but it occasionally shifts to the third. In spare, elliptical chapters and scenes, Didion offers us bits and pieces of the story of Maria Wyeth, a divorced B-list actress, and her dissolute coterie of Hollywood power players and hangers-on. The action moves among LA, Las Vegas and the Mojave Desert. The tale is a not particularly pleasant one involving drugs, drink, one-night stands, illegal abortions, dysfunctional relationships, questionable parenting, institutionalization, joy rides and flameouts.
10. Inside Daisy Clover by Gavin Lambert (1963) - Teenager Daisy Clover projects an appealing combination of naiveté and wisdom beyond her years in her first-person narration, and her gimlet-eyed observations and choice words are fun and sardonic. An ambitious singer-actress from the wrong side of the tracks, Daisy is discovered and then molded by domineering impresario Mr. Swan. She ascends the ladder of success, becomes a star, acts out, learns about the ways of the world, faces personal setbacks and humiliations, and soldiers on.