Benjamin Stein's new novel opens with "Fire! Not the worst brushfire in the history of Los Angeles, but plenty bad enough" -- an auspicious launch for a book which calls itself "A Novel of Hollywood."
Fires, you see, while they occur all over the world, are particularly redolent with meaning for those of us who live in Southern California. Mention brushfire and our mental movieolas are set awhirr -- dirty, red sun, Santa Ana winds carrying a grainy, white ash that coats the hoods of cars. Starting a novel with something so quintessentially L.A. can't help but raise expectations. Visions of Nathaniel West, perhaps Raymond Chandler, begin to stir. The dustjacket aims even higher. "Her Only Sin," it promises, "captures Hollywood -- its power struggles, its lure, its viciousness and its profundity -- in a way matched only by F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon." Viciousness and struggle? Okay, barely. Lure? Maybe a bit. Profundity? Well . . . Stein is not Fitzgerald, and most of what follows "Fire!" is smoke of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous variety.
The "her" of the title is Susan-Marie Warmack, former abused child, dreamer of big dreams and sometime mathematical genius. Her story is related by a pal, confidante and would-be lover who shares the author's first name. Whether this is meant to suggest that Susan-Marie is a compilation of people Stein has actually known, I have no idea.
1958. The Soviets have just launched Sputnik. Our heroine is a brilliant high school student in a federally funded calculus program designed to train young bests and brightests for high tech struggles with the Red Menace. But the forced sexual attentions of her unemployed, alcoholic stepfather leave her yearning for escape -- a need she satisfies by sitting through repeated showings of the movie Estonia, directed by Hollywood boy genius Paul Belzberg. Paternal abuse also leads to a hankering for anonymous, Goodbar-type sex, but this is a theme that never really develops.
Once out of school, Susan-Marie signs on with Ma Bell where, in 1968, our narrator tells us, she develops "a formula that would allow a machine called a 'computer' to generate random numbers more rapidly than previously possible." (For some reason Mr. Stein sets off the word "computer" in quotes as if it were an exotic term in the '60s.)
Instead of immediately heading for Silicon Valley, Susan-Marie enjoys a stint in the Nixon White House as a media consultant. Then (remember, this is a "novel of Hollywood") it's off to L.A. and, naturally, a position as a major executive at the fictional Republic Studios.
Lest this all seem too easy, the author offers up a little adversity. Susan-Marie encounters and eventually marries childhood idol Belzberg, but he turns out to be a real disappointment. His mistress, Dierdre Needle, a woman so venemously bitchy she would scare the beejesus out of Alexis Carrington, is worse. She tries everything in her power to wreck Susan-Marie's burgeoning career but to no avail. Belzberg ends up jetting off to obscurity with the foreign starlet and Needle, driven to madness by the success of her nemesis, literally falls on her sword.
STEIN has obviously had his brush with neo-realism. Her Only Sin abounds with the particulars of material wealth -- Mercedes convertibles and Jaguar XJ-6's, Bokhara carpets, Hermes scarves, Anuskiewics geometrics, as well as references to trendy eateries and real-life individuals like Ray Stark and Jules Stein. But instead of creating a pungent sense of time and place, all this glitterati stuff comes across hollow and forced, shoehorned in by a misbegotten sense of style.
The characters fare no better. They are mostly California cartoons: the dumb surfer, the bitch goddess, the boy director corrupted by the twin demons of fame and insecurity. As manifestly talented as she is, Susan-Marie would be more convincing as Empress of the Universe than a C.E.O.
Still, the book will appeal to those who snap up anything to do with wealth and celebrity, especially where the celebs seem ready to crash and burn. Buy it if you must, but save it for summer. It will look better through sunglasses and a film of tanning oil.