Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Houdini was related to one of the Three Stooges by marriage. I'll bet I'm the only one in this Heretic City who knows that.

The word “heretic” carries a heap of freight in this context. It’s the summer of 1969. A 24-year-old kid has just fled his studies in religion and architecture — a field of study he seems to have chosen in response to his father’s heretical, and potentially filicidal, theology. The young man is in Los Angeles, fresh off the bus. Laurel Canyon is beset by hordes of hippie kids his age who, unfortunately for him, are more interested in sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll than they are in movies — his newfound (heretic) religion. Doubly unfortunate: impeding his ability to blend in with the crowd is his personal aesthetic statement — a shaved scalp, tattooed with a still of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, from A Place In The Sun. Also: he’s just about to be picked up by the cops on suspicion of the Manson Family murders.

Thus begins the journey of Vikar Jerome — fiction’s latest, most memorable idiot to witness and generate the key upheavals of our culture. To my considerable surprise, I thought novelist Steve Erickson's entire trip was a gas.

I hesitated to pick it up, though. Sure, I'm a sucker for literate film reviews, film history narratives, and innocent bystander accounts of Hollywood debauchery. And I'm an especially easy mark for Schraderean accounts of religious students who flee the faith of their fathers to embrace instead the religion of film. Reviewers like Charles Taylor assured me that this novel delivered all of that with a dream-like power that persuades.

Unfortunately, Taylor and his company waxed on at length in a fashion reminiscent of Tarantino, and anyone who's listened to Tarantino enthuse knows there is no accounting for that guy's taste. He's excited, brainy, persuasive. But when viewers finally hit "play" they're well-advised to brace themselves for a dud.

I hit “add to cart.” When the book arrived I took one look at the cover (“Europa editions” — hmph), left it closed and dropped it on the “I might want to read this” pile. And there it lay, like a punk on the sidewalk, defying me to spare my loose change.

At some point during this eggnog-saturated Christmas I grabbed the book on my way to bed. I cracked open the cover, took fleeting notice of the extremely short chapters, and tucked in. Before I knew it, I’d read 40 chapters. That's 40 chapters in 35 pages, but still: I wanted to read more.

Now I sit, searching through its pages for amusing bits to share, completely undone by the wealth in front of me. There is good reason why this novel's reviewers sound like gibbering geeks. The book is loaded with movie arcana and convincing portraits of notorious, overindulgent yahoos (the same ones who never quite came alive in the pages of Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls). One glance reveals it to be a stylized work, but there's nothing “experimental” about Erickson's approach because it works. It is an immediately addictive, and narcotically compulsive read.

One thing it is not is "demanding." Certainly, if the reader desires to get über-geeky with the novel they can chart this particular idiot's quixotic voyage and contrast it with others; they can invert the narrative Moebius Strip and tease apart the gnostic mystery that ties the beginning to the end; they can even puzzle over what the 554 chapters — the latter half of which descend back down to zero — signify. But that stuff is the window dressing of what is finally an enticing, rich and (perhaps) deceptively easy read.

Good grief: I’m monologuing — like Tarantino! Let me leave it at this: if in the last 40 years you've ever fallen in love with the movies, pick this book up and crack it open. Give it an hour of your time, and see if you don't start to gibber a bit, too.

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