Celebrity, grit, tabloids, exposure

Novels of March

March 02, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

It would be difficult to imagine a better novel about celebrity than Martha Sherrill's terrific My Last Movie Star (Random House, 349 pages, $23.95). Hardboiled Clementine James profiles movie stars and moviemakers for New York's haute hip and trop trendy Flame magazine. Having determined that her work and by extension her life has become shallow, Clem agrees to one final profile before retiring to a horse farm with the ruggedly handsome Ned.

Her subject is Allegra Coleman, daughter of failed B-movie actress Kay Blyth and successful drag queen and painter Max Coleman. Having given a luminous performance in an edgy Bertolucci remake of Antonioni's classic L'Avventura, in the role made famous in real life by Monica Vitti, Allegra's Oscar-probable star is on the rise until, while driving through the desert, she crashes the car in which she and Clem are riding.

Left for dead, Clem loses an eye; Allegra disappears, perhaps dead, perhaps in flight from the accident and her looming celebrity. While searching out the missing Allegra, Clem converses and is counseled by various female stars -- sharply intellectual Myrna Loy, sweetly sad Marion Davies, overblown Loretta Young, earthy Tallulah Bankhead and a host of others. Sherrill crafts a near-perfect tour de force about the ebb and flow of fame. If Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is the ultimate indictment of Hollywood, Sherrill's novel is its perfect literary companion.

The less savory neighborhoods of Baltimore, the sumptuous battlements of Yale, the racially closed suburbs of Japan are where ZZ Packer delineates the world of diasporatic African-American women in her debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, 256 pages, $24.95). In "Our Lady of Peace," Lynnea escapes rural Kentucky only to end up teaching disenfranchised urban black youth in Baltimore, unable to change or control her students or ultimately, herself.

In the title story, a smart, poverty-stricken girl from Baltimore's meanest streets finds herself at Yale consumed by conflicts over race, sexuality and a paralyzing inability to lower her defenses. "Geese," the collection's most haunting tale, tracks a group of expatriate misfits literally starving while looking for work on the outskirts of Tokyo. The protagonist fled her Baltimore roots in search of something fresh, but succeeds in determining the steep price of survival. Well-wrought, poignant and surprising, the gritty grace of this book signals twentysomething Packer as a writer to watch.

Once a top-ranked investigative reporter, Roscoe Baragon now works the kook beat at a New York City newspaper. In Jim Knipfel's raucous The Buzzing (Vintage, 288 pages, $12), the government conspiracy theory Baragon researches starts to resemble plots of the B movies Baragon watches nightly (as do the things his subjects claim have happened to them). In the midst of intense middle-aged angst signaled by nights filled with too much booze and too many bad movies, Baragon struggles to retain his objectivity as weird events begin to plot a story so whacked it might just be true.

Perhaps the funniest novel about tabloid journalism since Francine Prose's 1986 Bigfoot Dreams, The Buzzing gets beat journalism just right, and Baragon's thought processes are hilarious and dead-on. The Buzzing presents American paranoia at an intellectual level where one can believe in both the single-bullet theory of the Kennedy assassination and the idea that the theory's author is now a senior senator. The Buzzing is strange-but-true at its zenith.

The death of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy forms the pivot that propels Ken Kalfus' The Commissariat of Enlightenment (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $24.95). The media of 1910 swarm to the small village of Astapovo, where Tolstoy lies on his deathbed. They include, in one train compartment, men who will change the shape of Russia: Vorobev, a doctor who has perfected embalming techniques (what he does with them later will amaze), and Gribshin, a camera assistant working for the French newsreel company Pathe. In Astapovo, Gribshin experiments with cinema propaganda.

A decade later, Gribshin has become the commissar of the title, working to create a new Soviet mythology for the masses who still oppose Communism. Despite Kalfus' poetic style and some brilliant black comedy, Commissariat fails to coalesce in the end; characters and plotting are left unresolved, and the novel seems unfinished, like the first installment of a much grander work, the length perhaps of War and Peace. Still, Kalfus captures the essence and frisson of change and possibility that must have infused the beginning of the 20th century and heralded the creation of the Soviet Union.

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