Hollywood has inspired plenty of writers, from Joan Didion to Harold Robbins and Gore Vidal. Author Matthew Specktor didn't have to look far for his inspiration -- he grew up in Hollywood with two parents working in and around the film industry. The California Report's book critic Oscar Villalon says Specktor's new novel, "American Dream Machine," goes beyond Hollywood's underbelly of ambition and greed. Reporter: Oscar Villalon
Excerpt from "American Dream Machine"
Before we get to meet Beau Rosenwald, the giant ball of hunger and drive around which all the characters in the novel “American Dream Machine” revolve, we first meet his sons and their lifelong friend. It’s the early ‘90s, and Will, Severin and Nate, the narrator, are coming to after a long night of partying and otherwise indulging in Hollywood privilege.
Normally in this kind of story, this is where we’d expect to see that the children of powerful agents and producers are, inevitably, numbed out, misogynistic or sociopathic. Instead, author Matthew Specktor treats us to a scene of warmth and thoughtfulness: some joshing about the evening before, an easy intimacy with each other and an implicit respect. The young men aren’t perfect, but they’re far from monsters. Much like the book’s central character, they’re just trying to figure out who they are and where they’re heading.
Beau Rosenwald -- who is a hard-bitten toad of a man, yet exudes an irresistible charisma and openness -- is plagued by his inability to understand who he is. Beau is one of the pioneers of Hollywood, a man who came to town in the ‘60s as a novice agent but goes on to help form a company that rivals the studios in its power to make movies and careers. We follow him through those early days of unchallenged white male entitlement, through the fracturing ‘70s to the glossy, shallow days of the ‘80s and to the near present. We witness Beau’s triumphs and failures, watch as he suffers terribly even as he makes others miserable, and root for him to try to arrive at some state of grace in his old age.
Along the way, we get an education on how the entertainment industry actually works. Specktor, whose father is a talent agent and mother is a screenwriter, was once a studio executive and producer. He nails down entertainment’s labor aspect, the tedium and long hours, the uncertainty and constant hustling.
Through Nate, his father's life is richly recreated and fully imagined, even as the story segues into the private worlds of the other people within Beau’s orbit. With the pliability of his namesake -- Philip Roth’s trusty narrator, Nathan Zuckerman -- Nate effortlessly conjures up the anxieties and the weariness, the joys and the thrills of the other protagonists.
Don’t be misled: “American Dream Machine” is not without the trappings of a Tinseltown tale: amid the wealth, there are drugs, boozing, promiscuity, even bloody violence. But it’s not especially about these things. Rather, the story is about love between friends and family, and what that demands of us. In this way, Specktor has written perhaps the most relatable Hollywood novel yet.