On Sunset Boulevard by Ed Sikov
I have often remarked on how I enjoy the element of scope in a read. This book has it in spades. Sikov must be a genius. The way he incorporates such disparate elements, from the depths of Nazi Austria and Germany to the heights of Hollywood elite, puts the reader right in the thick of things.
Screenwriter, director, producer, storyteller, man-about-town, Billy Wilder was one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood history. From Wilder’s early jobs as freelance journalist in Berlin to script writing for moving pictures, we see a man destined for greatness.
Berlin during the 20’s was the film capital of Europe. Eventually Wilder, as well as many other (read lucky) Jewish film professionals, escaped the approaching storm. Not surprisingly, many wound up in Hollywood. Others, including Wilder’s own mother, (not involved in film) were never found.
On Sunset Boulevard addresses in detail every motion picture Wilder was involved in. One of the things that exemplifies how all-encompassing these accounts are is that if the reader is tempted to skip over details—scripts, hiring and firing of directors, actors, artists and other film professionals—one will soon find they need to go back over the skipped passages for something important which needs clarifying. It’s all there. If you read the whole thing.
Not to say that the book doesn’t have its fictional elements. Mr. Wilder, quite the raconteur, varied his own accounts of events, often altering his stories according to a desired effect on whoever was listening. We are left to decide what is actually real and what may not be quite so.
Some of the most interesting areas are Sikov’s takes on the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of individuals. For instance, it seems that Gary Cooper was something of a dunce. He’d complain about too many ‘big words’ to memorize. Cooper said that because he didn’t even know what the words meant, he couldn’t stay within character while he memorized the sound of the word, because to him it was virtually impossible to decipher any meaning.
Wilder, a maverick for his times, battled constantly with the authorities of the Motion Picture Code. This was not unusual. During the 30’s the Code had its judgmental fingers in virtually every film made in the U.S. Apparently Wilder and his perennial but more conservative writing partner, Charles Brackett, had a love/hate relationship that brought out the best of both men, and by association, their wildly popular films. These films were raw, sexy, irreverent, and didn’t always require that bad guys go to jail. Or to hell. The code didn’t like raw.
I’ve only read about half of this 675-page tome, and tend to read it in fits and spurts rather than charge through. (Not the kind of spurts that occur reading erotica.)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Oscar De Leon got his nickname Oscar Wao as a street bastardization of Oscar Wilde. He’s a fat, black mulatto teenager living in Patterson New Jersey who wants to get laid, but he’s simply too much of a geek for it to happen. He lives in a community of other immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Oscar lives on science fiction, comic books and is a fair and dedicated writer himself.
Mostly related by an omniscient narrator who we eventually learn is one Yunior de las Casas, a hip compatriot of Oscar’s, also a writer, but not as out of step as Oscar. Yunior is much more in tune with how to be a Dominican/American. If we put our trust in what Yunior says in his hip street jargon mixed with Spanglish, he actually gets laid.
This sounds at first to be pretty ordinary fare, until we start getting into the history of Oscar and Yunior’s island roots. There is a phenomenon Dominicans call a “fuku” or “Curse and Doom of the New World” that comes into play. The island of Hispaniola has been fertile ground for dictators and strongmen, including the man who may have wreaked as much havoc as Columbus himself: Dictator Rafael Trujillo—culocrat.
Culocrat you say? According to Yunior, a culocrat is a strongman obsessed with ass (‘culo’ in Spanish) who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
Trujillo was a serial rapist who, when he desired a woman or girl, would make his desires known to her extended family. Somebody had better offer up the daughter, niece, wife, mother, or whoever caught his rapacious eye. Otherwise he’d make the family’s life miserable, if not over.
The culoculture extended to the dictator’s henchmen as well. If a man was in Trujillo’s good graces, he could get away with rape. Or murder. Or worse.
Suffice to say that Diaz does a tremendous job integrating Oscar’s family history into the narrative of a geek boy who can’t get laid. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.