Thursday, December 22, 2011
Always, by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen
March, 1979 Avon Books
This obscure paperback original concerns a screenwriter in 1979 Hollywood who falls in love with an actress named Brooke Ashley -- an actress who died in a mysterious fire in 1949. The screenwriter, Gregory Thomas, soon becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of Brooke Ashley's lover, who died in that fire with her; further, he is convinced that Brooke Ashley is out there somewhere, reincarnated just as he is, and he determines to find her. So in other words it's like a trashy romance novel penned by Shirley MacLaine.
Gregory's fiance Sharon unwittingly gets it all started; she takes Gregory to see a showing of Brooke's final film, which for some unstated reason is playing again in 1979 theaters. Watching Brooke on the big screen, Gregory finds himself crying for some bizarre reason during the maudlin finale. Soon he can't get her out of his head. He feels that he somehow knows Brooke Ashley, despite the fact that previous to seeing the film with Sharon, he was only peripherally aware of the long-dead actress.
He comes up with the idea to do a script loosely based around Brooke's life; at first he thinks maybe he'll imply that she didn't die in a fire, but then he comes up with the reincarnation premise, that she is alive out there somewhere, reborn in new flesh, and her also-dead lover is also reborn and must find her. He pitches the idea to his agent who says it'll go over like gangbusters; the agent, obviously stoned, goes further to say that Gregory should first write the idea down as a novel. This strikes me as strange, as everyone knows that Hollywood agents don't read novels. Already the novel has gone into the realm of fantasy.
Past-life memories gradually come back to Gregory. He tells no one, especially his fiance Sharon, who has become increasingly distanced from him. Sharon is jealous of the decades-dead Brooke Ashley, of the attention Gregory is giving her, and wishes he would just drop his entire script/novel idea. But after researching Brooke's life, Gregory gets deeper into it, even meeting up with one of the actress's friends: a now-old mystic who goes by the handle Madame Olga Nabokov, who acts as the novel's version of Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost.
It gets goofy when Gregory finally remembers his past life -- it comes to him in a sudden rush, all of it. His name was Michael Richardson, and he was a screenwriter then as now; in fact he wrote Brooke's last film. Working with Olga to track down pieces of his past life, Gregory soon collects a ring he once gave Brooke (another goofy moment; when he touches the ring it burns him -- the ring survived the fire which killed Michael Richardson and Brooke Ashley, you see) and even visits his mother. Michael Richardson's mother, that is. It's to Meldal-Johnsen's credit that he doesn't sap up this scene.
A horror element sneaks in as Gregory soon finds himself under psychic attack in his dreams. For some strange reason, Olga proves unhelpful here; you'd figure she'd at least teach the guy some lucid dreaming techniques for self-defense. I mean, even the kids in Nightmare on Elm Street 3 learned how to become "dream warriors." Anyway the threats continue in the real world as well, with Gregory receiving threats in the mail, threats demanding that he "forget" about Brooke Ashley and etc.
More research and remembrance and Gregory discovers who the culprit is: Brooke Ashley's mother. What's creepy though is she too died in the fire that killed Michael and Brooke. So either Brooke's mom lives on in the astral realm or she too has been reincarnated, and has continued hating Michael Richardson for taking away her daughter, no matter what skin he's now wearing. These scenes, while at first grating, soon add a layer of tension and suspense to Always, as Gregory finds himself in several life-or-death situations. Hell, even his cat gets killed. However the horror element plays out in an unintentionally-hilarious scene as Gregory accidentally runs over his enemy.
Many sequences of the novel are given over to long chunks of Michael's life with Brooke, how he met her, their dates, how they promised to be together in this world and the next, no matter what happened. Meldal-Johnsen tries to make this a soul-match sort of love, but sadly I found Gregory's relationships with Sharon and Jenny (a bimbo young actress Gregory hooks up with during a spat with Sharon) more believable. Also, Meldal-Johnsen really missed the potential for some true drama. Gregory isn't even married; imagine how much more impact this novel would have had if Gregory was married with kids. Given that, would he still try to find the reincarnation of his past-life lover?
Thankfully, Always isn't all love-written-in-the-stars romantic glurge. As was the style of the time, Meldal-Johnsen finds opportunity to trash it up with some graphic sex scenes every once in a while. My favorite such moment is when Jenny, the aforementioned bimbo actress, takes hold of Gregory's "distended penis worshipfully," says to it "Oh, lovely, gorgeous thing," pops a few ice cubes in her mouth, and then sets to work. And mind you, this is only their first date! Now that's a woman you reincarnate for.