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Robert Westbrook: the Torch Singer 2014
Book 1: An Overnight Sensation
§ I'm on a cruise ship heading down the west coast for Catalina Island, the old playground of the Hollywood crowd back in the 40's and 50's Golden Age, and I'm passing the time on my private balcony reading "An Overnight Sensation", the first book of Robert Westbrook's projected trilogy, The Torch Singer.
Came across it by accident, when doing some background research for a piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Robert Westbrook is Sheilah Graham's (the famous Hollywood columnist) son and wrote a book about her romance with Fitzgerald during the last three years of his life, 1937-40, when FSF was in Hollywood writing scripts for MGM, and more significantly, writing a novel about the film industry. Sheilah Graham is the template for the femme fatale in The Last Tycoon, and you know, I'm picking up some similarities, not only in the romance figure, and the Hollywood milieu with its seedy politics, but also in the narrative method Westbrook uses -- the lst person alternating with the 3rd person, a film noir frame narrative, which is what Fitzgerald uses in Tycoon.
It's good... and certainly appropriate, as a large part of the action takes place on the Mauretania, a transatlantic cruise ship often used as a troop transport during WW II. While a lot more cynical than Fitzgerald, Westbrook writes with an insider's easy sense of authenticity, especially in the 1st person sections where the story is told by Jonno, the "torch singer's" son (of course the historical sections that deal with the Torch Singer's hazardous escape from Nazi-occupied Poland are really just Jonno stepping back into the 3rd, as he is the narrator).
The story is pure Hollywood Babylon, as seedy as sex and crime can be, yet often romantic and heroic in that ironic and fated way the thespian world gives us its stagey view of the world. It's both opera and film noir, Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy rolled with Bizet's Carmen into a heady pop culture spiff. At times you might think you're reading an expose of The Brady Bunch. Indeed the narrator -- Jonno, the son of the Torch Singer, Sonya Saint-Amant -- was a child star in a TV sitcom for a brief spell, and before that his mother escaped from Poland, survived as a grifter in London until she was able to make the Atlantic crossing to New York. Insofar as the action goes, her story is her son's story, the desperate past catching up to the munificent present, and by the time Book 1 (An Overnight Sensation) ends, it's the present catching up to the future.
Great lateral characters: Julka the Gypsy ("the Great Jabolonski" a.k.a "Count Julka Szopin") who poses as Sonya's father in their escape from Poland; Max McCormick, the Hollywood director and wartime Lieutenant who is being furloughed back to the US when he has a fated meeting with Sonya on the Mauretania; Captain Landson -- later Congressman Landson -- the vet who has a hook for a hand and a slavish attraction to the indifferent Sonya; Ricky Bolano, a corrupt NY vice cop who later becomes a blackmailing P.I. in L.A.; Shelly Graves, the iambic English actor who only comes to Hollywood to sneer and grab the money; Mina Davis (a.k.a "Aunt Mina") the petite screen star wife of Max McCormick... and many more exotics and eccentrics as the flashback sections have a picaresque adventure quality, where coincidence and Fortune smile and frown on or off the beat as the author deems necessary.
The novel isn't pulp, although pulp imagery often pushes the action. It starts with a Beverly Hills murder-suicide and ends... well, you'll have to read it, do the Hollywood Walk of Fame, maybe even buy Book 2 to find some clearing in the crystal ball. It's like the "prime suspect is me" gambit. It has that old movie feel in places i.e. the hanky panky on the Mauretania might remind you of the wartime boat action in Journey Into Fear but without the bullets. Westbrook writes up a nice brew of nostalgia mixed with post-modern decadence. Good writing, good research, lots of laughs and enough grit to make you melancholy, make it real.
Extorted blow jobs in a snowy field or a NY cinema will do that. Mind you, this isn't crime fiction porno or 'true crime' hard bop; the story is a little too Dickensian to allow any of that.
Sonya reinvents herself, as many people do, in the New World. She goes from being an apprentice diva in Krakow to being a "torch singer" in Los Angeles, which would be a nightclub fatale somewhere between Swing and American chanson. Just how she manages this is often left to the imagination and what isn't is from the Jerzy Kosinski survivalist school. You could say Sonya is already living in a movie before she reaches Hollywood.
Well, we're anchored off Catalina. Nice sunny day and the jazz festival is happening in the old art deco Avalon ballroom. Maybe Sonya sang here when the big moon sent its shiver of madness over the dark, undulating water. So maybe I'll go ashore, walk with the ghosts... Natalie Wood... the others who came and went.
A few days to come before we get back to Vancouver. Maybe I'm hooked. Maybe I'll download the second eBook, Book 2, "An Almost Perfect Ending", see what Robert Westbrook has in mind.
© LR October 2016
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