When such New York literary magnificoes as Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton gush over a book about New York, the provincial reviewer dissents with rustic fear and trembling. For Wolfe calls "Bad Dreams" "the most compelling nonfiction story since 'In Cold Blood'--only better"; and Plimpton judges it "absolutely engrossing." The Book-of-the-Month Club validates them by picking it as a featured alternate.
Certainly it has the right stuff. A fabulously successful horse trainer, Buddy Jacobson--a sort of six-furlong Horatio Alger--becomes a familiar of Elaine's, Nicola's, builds a zingy model agency, starts a multi-million dollar real estate empire. He is in his mid-forties and counting.
His lover, Melanie Cain, at 19 is one of the most beautiful and sought-after models in New York. The "other man" is a dashing martial arts buff and alleged cocaine princeling who is bludgeoned, stabbed and shot to death by the jealous horse trainer and his thugs.
Their story is microscopically detailed: the murder and events leading up to it; the sensational trial; a coincidental high-dive suicide; a loosely connected but enormous pot and hashish ring.
By rights, "Bad Dreams" should be fascinating.
True, it is not, as the publisher's hyped cover tells us, a tale of "sexual obsession." Nor is it, as Tom Wolfe urges on us, a study of "the glamour of New York." Glamorous people do not, I think, at the apogee of their sophistication, go without socks and underwear or drink ordinary Italian wines like Verdicchio.
Yet in the hands of Tom Wolfe, either Tom Wolfe actually, the book might have become the quintessential action-and-psychology statement on New York's glitter-and-death scene. In Anthony Haden-Guest's, for all its strengths, it isn't.
For one thing, Haden-Guest is too straight, too much the dispassionate reporter. He sets for himself limits that may be self-destructive: He only writes what he can prove; he stubbornly refuses to speculate on what really goes on in his characters' minds.
On the face of it, this would seem a virtue. But in seeking the tone of this fast-track world and the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants, the technique is a drag.
We wind up crying out to know what this conscientious author thinks about these people. We curse the publisher's otherwise worthy desire to keep the price under $15 because it prevents a photo spread which might have let us see these guys and dolls.
For the effect of Haden-Guest's naturalism is an undigested background of people and events. The most sanguinary happenings seem bloodless, the most unusual characters unknowable. So fair is Haden-Guest in presenting contradictory testimony about his characters that they are reduced to a muddle.
Buddy Jacobson, who all the other figures in the book agree is a genius, remains a mere hustler. Melanie Cain is as lifeless and enigmatic as a cover-girl photo. She is redeemed only by flashes of vengeful determination. We are told, intriguingly, that she reads Nietzsche. Haden-Guest, though he has interviewed her for hours, never tells us why.
It may be that this bunch is so naturally dull that for Haden-Guest to speculate on their mental processes would have been even more damaging to the book. In truth, time and again as I read it, I thought of "them" in Joyce Carol Oates' "Them," characters who were equally painstakingly and honestly examined but who never became interesting enough to engage me.
The best character in "Bad Dreams" is Haden-Guest himself. He is everywhere, eating with his characters, inadvertently eavesdropping on them, hearing Melanie's most intimate confidences, chatting with Buddy after Buddy kills his rival, getting finally so deeply into the story that he is subpoenaed during the murder trial. Maybe he should have written about himself writing the book, a la Norman Mailer.
For by far the best writing in the book is his description of the problems he faced in writing it. His words are both brilliant apologia and epitaph for books which depend on amassing detail, indefatigable fairness, and priestly objectivity for their impact.
"There is always shadowy terrain in the working out of a story such as this. Events are observed--or created--by different characters, and these characters may have histories, motives, drives that they do not necessarily even comprehend themselves.
"One can hear two versions of an event, or two descriptions of a person, or one can hear three, four, six, twelve . . . Occasionally something will come out one hundred percent, like a puzzle solved, a map correctly read. But almost always there are fragments that make no sense. Paths that start out promisingly dribble slowly into the scrub or end abruptly, like abandoned motorways."
"Bad Dreams" is no such motorway. It is a road that runs sure, hard, straight--even fast, in the trial and some few other sequences. But for me, it runs through barren country.