Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hollywood Nightmares

Every time I go in a used bookstore, I still buy books by James Robert Baker - even if I already own them - simply because they’re so damned hard to find. He was a truly gifted satirical writer, well ahead of his time but deeply troubled, finally committing suicide in 1997. Over the course of a half-dozen uneven novels, he left behind two unconventional beauties.

The first, Fuel-Injected Dreams,was only re-released in 2003 by Thunder’s Mouth Press. It was so full of delightfully filthy turns of phrase that when I first ran across it in the 1980’s, I couldn’t believe anyone would actually let you write like this. A thinly veiled portrait of the psychotic architect of the Wall of Sound, Phil Spector, it celebrates low-brow language and the visceral weirdness of sweltering Los Angeles. I dare (almost) anyone to read the beginning of Fuel-Injected Dreams, a spinning, malevolent diatribe by DJ Scott Cochrane, and not revel in the joy of its radio-inflected patois:

Well, I see by the cracked face of my Princess Grace wristwatch that it’s four A.M. and the City of Angels is a glowing necropolis for as far as my wind-tunnel eyes can see. You know, boys and girls, I’ve got quite a view from my bullet-proof glass tomb up here on the eighteenth floor of the Sunset/Vine Tower. On a good day looking east, I can see Pico Rivera and on nights like this, when it’s hot and clear, I can see a ten-car pileup on the 405 in the suburbs of San Diego. It’s hot in here tonight and that’s no accident, either. I’m suffocating in a fishbowl, gasping for breath in a plate-glass vault, drowning in pools of my own masculine sweat. I’m stripped down to my frayed Soldier of Fortune jockstrap, my rock-hard Mel Gibson torso gleaming in the soft amber light, my golden skin slick as a piston after a lube job, all because I refused to let myself be turned into a male sex object…

From there, Cochrane gets inexorably tied to Dennis Contrelle, the fictionalized record producer and the man’s disturbing obsession with one of the beehived honeys in 1960’s girl-group The Stingrays. It’s a little dated in places and is embedded with a deeply disturbing twist in its denouement but otherwise holds up well as an offbeat, sharply written pop-culture mystery referencing the maddening obsession of record collectors everywhere.

Even darker is Baker’s own crack at a Hollywood that tempted and scorned him, the satiric epic that is Boy Wonder.It’s an original idea that portrays the life story of Shark Trager, a director broken by film school who turns into the producing wunderkind of the movie industry, through the memories of his friends, enemies, lovers and family. Fans of movie trivia will love it from Shark’s birth when his dad bumps some kid in a Porsche off the road in 1955 to his final drug-addled moments plowing through a theater full of filmgoers. In-between, Baker ravages every aspect of the golden age of movie making, skewering Close Encounters, Peckinpah, Bonnie & Clyde and dozens of other celluloid moments. It has exploding suburbs, incestuous twins, chainsaw massacres and another obsession as big as Shark’s drug-addled irises.

Happy hunting.