Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boy Wonder

Boy Wonder, by James Robert Baker
January, 1990 Signet Books
(Original hardcover edition, 1988)

I had such a great time re-reading James Robert Baker's unsung masterpiece Boy Wonder. I loved it the first time I read it, but this time I really got caught up in the entire world Baker has here created, an OTT world of the movies and America. Baker's sense of humor and attention to detail are so mind-blowingly spot-on that the nearly-600 pages of this frantic tome speed by like a bullet train. In fact I was depressed when it was over, as both the novel and the characters had become a part of my life. I was sorry to see them go.

Told in the format of an "oral history," Boy Wonder is comprised of dialog from around 20 or so characters ("those who loved and loathed him the most"), detailing the crazed life of Hollywood producer Shark Trager. Born in 1950 in a drive-in theater, Shark grows up in a hardscrabble, white trash world to become a warped Hollywood genius, producer of artistic films and commercial blockbusters in the '70s before his crash and burnout in the '80s. We learn from page 1 that Shark has suffered a "sudden spectacular death" in 1988; the novel appropriates the format of Citizen Kane, with each character giving us their own impressions of Shark and their adventures with him. Baker is such a gifted writer that the characters soon appear real; I almost wanted to check for more information on their work.

"Boy Wonder" was the nickname of Irving Thalberg, production manager at MGM through the '30s; Thalberg put his own stamp on his films and passed away before he was 40, victim of a weak heart. Though he isn't mentioned much in the novel, Thalberg is an obvious inspiration for Shark; so too is David O. Selznick, an independent producer who had his hand in King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and dozens of others. (Baker even has Shark reading Memo From David O. Selznick, though unfortunately he has him reading the book a few years before it was published.)

Like these men, Shark puts his own stamp on the films he produces. The novel takes us through them all, from the uninentional camp classic he directs in the late '60s in college (which nevertheless is heralded as a new Citizen Kane), to a sleazy tale about a hippie cult of killers which prefigures the Manson murders, to lowbrow comedy hits in the '70s; a decade which culminates in a mega-budget, ultra-gory bloodfest about a childhood friend of Shark's who became a serial killer. This scene alone takes in all the excess of late '70s Hollywood, with Shark and his comrades coke-snorting sociopaths who make Apocalypse Now-era Francis Ford Coppolla look like Frank Capra.

Early on the reader sees that Shark's films and his life are a mirror of whatever was going on in America at the time. And just as the drug-fueled '70s reached burnout in the early '80s, so too does Shark suffer a horrible crash and burn, ending up as a literal beach bum. But in true heroic fashion he builds himself back up, his comeback film a saccharin blast of psuedo-religious bunk that would probably embarras Steven Spielberg; of course it's a hit. But Shark's obessions soon return until his final blowout at the 1988 Oscars ceremony -- another stellar sequence from Baker. And if more Oscar ceremonies were like this one, people would actually watch them.

But that's just the film side of Shark's life. This isn't mentioning his Right Wing nutjob of a father, his meek, insane mother who commits suicide on Christmas Day when Shark's still a boy, his succession of stepmothers (one of whom is so racist she's booted from the Nixon campaign administration!), and most importantly, his lifelong obsession with Kathy Petro. Kathy is one of the stars of the novel, a vapid Californian blonde who becomes the "It" girl of the early '70s; she meets Shark when both are teens and Shark is consumed with thoughts of her. And it truly is a sick relationship, with a speed-popping teenaged Shark secretly filming Kathy in all sorts of compromising situations; these films keep coming back to haunt Kathy for the rest of her life.

It's another credit to Baker's mastery that Kathy emerges as a genuine character, smarter than other characters (or even the reader) give her credit for. A subtle note I only caught on this re-reading: Baker speaks as "himself" in the preface, thanking all of the (fictional) people who spoke to him for the book. He closes with a loving appraisal of Kathy, and it becomes clear that he too is smitten with her. This only becomes more of an in-joke when one reads the novel and notes Kathy's predilection for becoming involved with men who turn out to be gay, which Baker himself was (more on that later).

So much happens in this novel that the reviewer doesn't even know where to start. How can I convey the insanity that occurs on practically every page? This is comedy of the most outrageous sort -- there aren't many novels that can cause the reader to laugh out loud, but Boy Wonder pulls off this feat over and over and over again. Humor of every sort, from low-brow scatalogical stuff to more high-browed material; Shark being involved in the movie biz, Baker therefore skewers a host of "Hollywood types," and the greatest thing is that he so nails the high-brow "film critic" types that you can read their dialog as full-on farce and as the sort of self-wankery that movie reviewers are known for. (My favorite being the description of Josef von Sternberg's work as "deadpan narcotic camp;" not only is this a great spoof of something you'd come across in say the ultra-serious work of Andrew Sarris, but it's also a perfect description of Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich.)

Baker's comedic skills and his sense of timing are just incredible, particularly the way he will set up and pay off his jokes. One example of many: one of Shark's '70s films is to be a modern take on John Ford's classic The Searchers. Shark reveals to one of the characters the "hidden meanings" of Ford's movie: that John Wayne's character wanted to rape his niece at the end of the film, after rescuing her from the Indians. The look in Wayne's eye as he says "Let's go home;" Shark claims that if you study the Duke's face, you'll see what he really wants to do to the girl. Several pages later, there's a scene where Shark gets in a fistfight with Jack Petro, millionaire president of Petro-Chem and the father of Kathy Petro. As they fight, Kathy's bikini comes undone and her breasts pop out -- her father of course sees this. Through the novel Kathy and her dad have had a bitter relationship; after Shark leaves and Kathy helps her father to his feet, he gives her this look, then utters in a strangled voice: "Let's go home."

A few hundred pages go by after that and these same words are spoken by Hector the Talking Donkey in Shark's blockbuster mid-'70s comedy Looking For Lupe -- Hector saying the words to Lupe herself, a (human) female character whom the script heavily implies he has had "relations" with. (This isn't even mentioning the original plan for that Searchers remake, where instead of American Indians it's inner-city blacks who kidnap the white girl, complete with a scene where the John Wayne character visits a clinic where previous kidnapped white girls are held, their hair corkscrewed, yelling "What you lookin' at, mothuhfuckuh?" And when the producers realize they could lose money by offending blacks, they change the villains to less-revenue-risky lesbians!)

This is just one example of how Baker will play a joke out through the novel, and there are hundreds of such instances. I mean, halfway through the novel you're feeling winded. Just so much has happened you need a breather. But then, "like something out of a gross screwball comedy," a drunk Shark pukes off his hotel balcony in the middle of the night, and moments later a violent pounding comes at his door. It's a livid Carol Van Der Hof, clubfooted heiress, and she's covered in Shark's vomit. (Of course, she talks exactly like Katharine Hepburn circa Bringing Up Baby.) And it just goes on, Carol now a central part of Shark's life after this disgusting "meet cute," the novel barrelling on with no regard for the reader's staminia. It's almost too much of a good thing.

In fact the first time I read the novel I began to get burned out in the third half, when a post-crash Shark starts up an opium-fogged relationship with Maya Dietrichson, a blonde punk singer who bears a striking resemblance to Kathy Petro (one of the running jokes in the novel is that most of the girls Shark becomes involved with resemble Kathy, many of them turning out to have been winners of regional "Kathy Petro lookalike" contests). During that first reading I thought this sequence could've easily been cut from the book, but this time it turned out to be one of my favorite parts. In a way Shark's life here is almost idyllic, living in a furnished room adjacent to the projection booth in a repository theater; here he lounges all day, running the projector, enjoying a perfect view of the classic films playing below him.

Like any true satire, Boy Wonder is both tribute and spoof of trashy fiction. Baker's writing and his attention to detail alone place the novel in the realm of Literature, but at the same time more lurid stuff goes on here than in the most exploitative book you could name. It's all here: drugs (Shark does practically every drug known to man), sex of all persuasions (one of the subtle jokes is how forthcoming these characters are about their sex lives with their "interviewer" Baker), ultra violence (including a self-decapitation via chainsaw), hippie terrorists, a messy encounter between Nancy Reagan and Hector the Donkey in the White House, pitched battles with Yakuza and Muslim terrorists, a castrated serial killer who "masturbates furiously" everytime he glimpses bloodshed, neo-Nazi students who pose as retarded schoolchildren to get into movies at half price, and on and on and on. Again, there's such an overwhelming amount of great, insane stuff that the reviewer doesn't know where to begin.

That isn't to say Boy Wonder is all vicious comedy and no heart. There are some genuine moving moments in here. A ten-year-old Shark opening presents by himself on Christmas morning as the paramedics take away his mother's corpse, the long-simmer love story between Shark and Kathy (which is both twisted and touching at times), even the finale of the novel, which builds to an appropriate moving climax as, despite all the horrible things he has done, you can't help but feel sorry for Shark as he suffers his "sudden and spectacular death." But then Baker again shows the mastery of his vision by undercutting the maudlin sappiness with the very last sentence of the novel. That alone was nearly enough to bring a tear to my eye.

In a perfect world, Boy Wonder would outsell the Bible. But it was only a modest success, scoring middling reviews from the critics (the funniest of them all being the dweeb at the New York Times who claimed the book "just isn't funny," which says more about him than the novel). Reading these contemporary reviews, it appears obvious to me that none of the critics actually read the entire novel; the majority of them only mention the beginning and the end, glossing over the entirety of the book's events. Commercially the novel scored a mass market paperback incarnation, but even it was graced with half-assed endorsements. And from there the novel went into oblivion, only to be resurrected as a cult classic. Admittedly this aspect adds to the novel's charm. Boy Wonder is one of those novels the reader of forgotten fiction can snidely hold forth as a certifiable classic, a great novel that went unnoticed, too smart and too funny for the common masses.

Boy Wonder and Baker's first novel Fuel-Injected Dreams are mainstream fiction, though Baker himself was gay. Six years after Boy Wonder, Baker "came out" with Tim and Pete in 1994, a novel which was taglined by reviewers as "a gay Natural Born Killers." Tim and Pete was savaged by the critics and did untold damage to Baker's career. At least, so the story goes. I've always found something strange about the story. If ever there was a time for a gay novelist to come out, it would have been the early '90s. But the story goes that Baker's coming out as a homosexual proved the undoing of his literary career. He took the final horrible act of killing himself in 1997.

I read a lot, and it's not something that happens to me often, but Boy Wonder is one of the few novels where I wish I could write the author a note, even just to say "Thanks." It has everything I could ever want in a book: great writing, smart comedy, three-dimensional characters, and a perfectly-realized, self-contained world. It's the type of novel that could send a reader right down the rabbit hole of obsession. There should be mini Wikipedias out there solely devoted to the world Baker has created, a self-referencing counter-America of the 1950s through the 1980s, a world of such films as Red Surf, Sex Kill a Go-Go, Method To Her Modness, Blue Light, Stews On Wheels ("They quit smiling the night the Angels ripped off their wings"), and on and on. (Baker not only references real films -- he shows a certain fondness for the work of Josef von Sternberg, whose movies happen to be among my own favorites -- but the breadth of his pop culture knowledge even encompasses chop-sockey Bruceploitation, with the awesomely-titled This Movie No Star BRUCE LEE.)

Well, I've raved enough. I'll surely read Boy Wonder again within a few years, and will probably post yet another review. It's one of the few novels that rewards multiple readings; there were a host of things I caught this time out that escaped me the first time. All that's left for me to say is just stop reading this review (easy for me to say now that I've finally reached the end) and go buy the book. There are a few editions to choose from: the original US hardcover from 1988, the 1990 Signet mass market paperback, and the 1988 UK paperback published by Futura. There's also a later UK printing which features a homoerotic cover, capitalizing on Baker's cult status as a gay author. Unfortunately this gives the wrong impression of the novel. It's misleading, like putting a photo of a guy holding a machine gun on the cover of In Search of Lost Time.

But any edition you can find is worth buying. This is not a novel you want to check out from the library. You want to buy it and treasure it. Of all the novels I've read, there are three I would claim as my favorites: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutuord, and Boy Wonder. Of those three, I'd place this one at the top. I almost want to take to the streets and evangelize for it.


Tim Mayer said...

You recommendations just makes my "To Read" pile grow larger.

Will Errickson said...

This sounds completely amazing! Thanks so much.

Allez said...

Yeah, this was a great one. I borrowed it from the library after reading Fuel-Injected Dreams, which is also amazing. This book is so over-the-top and it flows so well. I'll have to read again.

muskrat said...

Sounds like a wild kitchen sink book. Must read. Ever read Earl Thompson's trilogy Garden of Sand, Tattoo, and Devil To Pay? Trust me, these you'd dig.

Joe Kenney said...

I actually picked up Tattoo a few years ago, but never got around to reading it once I found out it was the second part of a trilogy. I need to pick up Garden of Sand one of these days.

John Nail said...

Just finished reading Boy Wonder and LOVED IT! Thanks for recommending it. It was such a wonderful reading experience. One of those rare gems that appeals to trashionados while remaining a literary achievement. One of my favorite lines: "Are we sure Ali McGraw can play an idiot?"

Like you, I wish Baker were still around so I could send him a note of thanks. You mentioned that it seemed odd James Robert Baker's career would take a nosedive when he came out as gay given the climate in the 1990s. That he'd have a hard time reaching a mainstream audience is understandable because gay, but his brand of storytelling didn't exactly fit comfortably with the gay market, either. I've only read one of his gay novels, Testosterone, published posthumously in 2000 (and made into a mediocre indie movie in 2003), and can tell you it's as much about being gay as Brokeback Mountain is about cowboys. Apparently Testosterone, with its violence- and obsession-fueled storyline, was fairly representative of Baker's gay fiction. (His better-known gay novel, Tim and Pete, is supposedly more angry and violent, some critics calling it "irresponsible."). Unfortunately for Baker, his work wasn't representative of gay ficton-as-a-genre. I'm sure there were other issues in addition to a flagging writing career that drove Baker to suicide, but coming out of the closet only to be shunned by your so-called target market had to feel like a betrayal.

I plan to read some of Baker's other books, namely Fuel-Injected Dreams and Tim and Pete. Again, thanks for the great review and the awesome blog.

Joe Kenney said...

John, thanks a lot for the comment, and I'm really glad you enjoyed Boy Wonder. I also appreciated the comments on his gay fiction; interesting theory on why his work might not have gone over so well with that market, and how he might've felt betrayed as a result. I'd recommend reading Boy Wonder again someday, if you haven't already planned to; I think I enjoyed it even more the second time I read it. And I'd forgotten all about that Ali McGraw line -- but then, the novel is filled with gems!

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

Ok, I'm sold just because of "This Movie No Star Bruce Lee!".
Off to bookfinder.....