Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review of Private Screenings by Lawrence Richette

The announcement of a new Larry Richette book is always good news. This novel sees Larry (since I know him, we'll call him Larry, and not the more formal Richette) branching out from his usual setting of Philadelphia to take a look at New York City in the 1980s. AIDS, greed, career obsession, cocaine, and all your other 80s favorites are there, mixed in a tale that could be a spiritual bookend for The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Instead of a character having an existential crisis as well as being obsessed by the movies, Larry's protagonist and narrator, Tony, a film school student, has an existential crisis while being obsessed with making movies. Another good reference point would be all the 80s blank generation fiction novels such as Bright Lights, Big City. This novel glamorizes things a bit less, probably because of the distance in time, but has similar themes to those novels in that the characters risk losing their souls seduced by their own ambition and that of others in the big city. The major literary path followed here is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose sensibility is referenced explicitly in the novel as one of the characters prepares to play the role of Zelda Fitzgerald in a movie. Of course, Fitzgerald was writing of the same themes in the 1920s and Larry explores them in the 1980s, particularly how individual ambition can destroy love and marriage. Though you root for them, none of the characters are particularly admirable (here's an indication of what they're like: the most likable character, Manfred, is a pornographer and pimp) so what keeps the novel moving is the strength of Larry's writing. He captures the feel of the time in lines such as "She led me to the master bedroom. There were signed photographs of Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. In the Cape Cod moonlight they looked like signed photographs of Beelzebub's chief three attendant demons." A lot of Republicans try to convince us today that Reagan was a great president. I lived through Reagan and I can tell you that he wasn't. He was a fake down to the color of his hair, and ultimately a lousy shill for General Electric his whole life, first as a tv host (General Electric Theater) and then as President so we went into massive debt buying weapons and other defense products we really didn't need (Star Wars) so the rich could get richer chomping at the trough of the public treasury. Hmm . . . communism as the bogeyman to scare us into coughing up tax dollars so that the rich can loot the treasury with their corporations, and now terrorism as the bogeyman to scare us into coughing up tax dollars so that the rich can loot the treasury with their corporations--the classic scams never go out of style in America, do they? Even though Larry doesn't get terribly political here, he does get the feel of the times exactly right, reminding us that Reagan and the rest of the 1980s weren't as pleasant as our hazy memories want to remember them as. Instead, it was an era when greed invaded not just our dreams (the ultimate private screenings), but also our beds, and whom we shared them with.

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