It's difficult to believe that many readers who are not being paid to read "Bluebird Canyon" actually will make it all the way to the end of this interminably talky novel. It's one of those books that proves -- as if further proof were necessary -- that good intentions and a heart of gold simply are not enough; a writer also must have something to say and a valid way of saying it and, in this novel, Dan McCall, alas, has neither.
Like Larry Woiwode in his equally unsuccessful novel "Poppa John," McCall has it in mind that a person who spends a long time acting a role in a television soap opera eventually may so lose himself in the role that he cannot distinguish reality from illusion and eventually comes to accept illusion as reality. It is a mildly imaginative idea, one that a skillful novelist might turn into a provocative commentary on contemporary life; but though both Woiwode and McCall are talented, respected writers, neither has made anything of it except a mess.
McCall has failed primarily because he has chosen an utterly unconvincing point of view from which to tell the tale. Its central figure is the actor, Rex Hooker, but the narrator is an old friend of his, a policeman named Oliver Bodley who is known, for reasons that are not in the least bit interesting, as Triphammer. Both men are now in their late thirties, but they have seen almost nothing of each other since high school. Then Triphammer's chief, remembering his old associations with the Hooker family, sends him to their house to help get Rex out of a self-created mess. One thing leads to another, and Triphammer quickly finds himself in the clutches of this family whose members, in his view, are "like loose wires, skipping on the pavement."
But no matter how deeply Triphammer gets sucked into the tangled erotic and emotional affairs of the Hookers, it is never deep enough to persuade the reader that he is the right narrator for this story. In the first place, it is not easy to accept the central premise that an outsider can speak with such authority about the intimate affairs of so tightly knit and incestuous a clan. In the second, imposing Triphammer on the story requires that McCall give him a justification for being there, which is that he is being taken over by the Hookers even as he declares: "I want my own life. My wife. Children." But all this accomplishes is to move Rex away from the center of the novel, where he obviously belongs, and therefore to leave everything out of focus.
Even if it were in focus, "Bluebird Canyon" probably wouldn't be worth the time of day. McCall clearly is enchanted by all the wives and children and grandparents and cronies with whom he has populated it, but there is no evident reason for anyone else to take the slightest notice of them, much less care about what happens to them. Triphammer says: "People want their lives to mean something to themselves. That's Bodley's Law." But it is the novelist's task to make the lives of his characters meaningful to his readers, and this McCall has not done. They stroll through his pages in an endless parade of indistinguishable boozing, partying and talking.
Above all, talking. As is perhaps appropriate for a novel set in southern California, "Bluebird Canyon" is one long screenplay. Not merely do McCall's people talk and talk and talk, but they talk up the Big Issues--life and death and all that -- with a slangy portentousness that is alternately numbing and infuriating, and sometimes both. There's an 11-year-old boy (by the end of the book he has aged a year, and so has the reader) who talks with at least as much profundity as Leo Buscaglia, PhD, if not indeed Mortimer J. Adler -- and McCall's noble intentions notwithstanding, it's not easy to feel much sympathy for a kid who talks like that.
But for that matter it's hard to feel sympathy, or anything else, for anyone in "Bluebird Canyon." It's one of those books that, though completely harmless, leaves the reader utterly bewildered as to what possessed the author to write it. It has nothing interesting to say about soap operas or southern California or self-destruction or any of the other matters it attempts to address, and one comes to its final page with an enormous sense of relief.