Sarah is one of the buyers at Changing Hands (see: Tempe, hot, dust storms, reptile haven), and Danny is a receiver in the store. They both agree that American Dream Machine
by Matthew Specktor is the best book they've read thus far this year. Sarah put us on to Danny's blog, Some Damn Fool's Opinions
, where he reviews books and movies and shares his musings. Trust us: this is a blog to explore. In the meantime, though, we're using his blog post for American Dream Machine
A Hollywood story is a tricky thing to write. Especially nowadays, when the
public love affair with the movie industry is long over and we view celebrities
as over-privileged rich assholes who keep butting into our social and political
arenas and ought to just shut up and entertain us. Monkeys. How then does a
writer proceed? The easy answer is to view the industry, and the entire town,
indeed as many have done, with a cynical eye. Render those Hollywood types into
shallow caricatures who we can laugh at even though their lives are better than
our own. But in American Dream Machine
, author Matthew Specktor doesn’t take the
easy route. He uses the town, and the film business, as a backdrop to tell the
story of a man’s rise, fall, rise to even greater heights, spectacular fall,
rise yet again, and once again fall, and how the echoes of this man’s successes
and failures affected his offspring. In short, this book is a deeply personal
tragedy, or series of tragedies really, that, while remaining cooly detached
enough to stay hip and not delve into melodrama, isn’t afraid of deeply
The novel follows the life of Beau Rosenwald-seen through the eyes of his
illegitimate son Nate-and his extreme ups and downs. Beau is overweight, ugly,
and obnoxious, but can talk his way through any situation. He’s a Hollywood
agent who loves what he does for only the most visceral of reasons. He’s no
artist, no fan of art in fact, but believes powerfully in movies and loves the
challenge of the deal. American Dream Machine tells his life story, and through
it, brings life to Hollywood, the film industry, and the sense of time passing.
Time passing is a big theme in this novel as it has no problem skipping ahead
great amounts of time yet never losing its sense of urgency. The title itself
refers to the name of the talent agency that Beau opens with his friend
Williams, along with a few other colleagues, and conquers Hollywood with. There
is everything you expect in a novel like this, power struggles, personal and
professional tragedies, the straining of the offspring of powerful men to
separate themselves from their fathers, but though all this seems familiar, the
novel never delves into the cliché. The material is fresh, mostly due to dead-on
characterization, pitch-perfect dialogue, and a cynical love of all the
characters that inhabit this world.
There is a mystery, a few mysteries in fact, moving the plot forward in this
book. The mysteries involve an unexplained death, a missing person, and family
trees. The beauty of these mysteries is that the novel doesn’t depend on them.
They’re plot devices, yes, but it’s more that they’re character defining
obsessions. The reader won’t even fully realize we’re reading a mystery until we
come to the big reveal moments, and then realize we’ve been hooked all along.
This will not be marketed as a mystery novel, and rightfully so as it has just
about nothing in common with the Grishams and Pattersons of the world, but it
seems to have the potential of a crossover hit.
Specktor’s voice is the standout star of this novel. He’s funny, he’s tragic,
and most of all, he’s a story-teller. The fact that this novel spans over 40
years means naturally we’ll get to know a lot of different characters. People
come and go throughout, and yet all of them feel fully realized and complicated.
Time is such an important issue in this book and is dealt with masterfully.
Specktor has no problem, often in the context of a single paragraph, reaching
far back or forward in time. Using time this way, there is a constant uneasy
sense of tragedy looming on the outskirts at all time. We know things are going
to go bad, because we’re told all along that they will, so when the tragedy hits
it feels like a foregone conclusion, a destiny.
This is Specktor’s third novel, by my count, and though I have yet to read
his other work, he seems to be a rising star. And if word is true that this
novel has been optioned for a Showtime series, then that could mean we’ll be
hearing a lot more from him. To which I say, hooray.