Gilda would have hated it.
That's the first line of Rex Reed's first novel, "Personal Effects." Interestingly enough, it's also the last line in Rex Reed's first novel. See, at the end of the novel, one of the characters begins to write the novel we've just read. It's complicated, but this much I can tell you: Gilda is Gilda Greenway, a Hollywood legend in the Garbo mold, and what she would have hated is the scene at her own funeral.
She would have wanted to go out on a rainy, gloomy day, like "James Mason's funeral scene in 'A Star is Born.' " She would have wanted mourners in dark raincoats. Instead, Forest Lawn is bright, bathed in the light from a sun "as hot and yellow as an exploding lemon."
That's right -- an exploding lemon. You were expecting Dostoevsky, maybe? Sorry. What you get reads more like, well, the literary equivalent of "Dynasty." Will it help to tell you that Cosmopolitan has purchased first serial rights? Or that "Personal Effects" is already destined to be an NBC mini-series? This is trash with flash -- a step above Jackie Collins, a notch below Harold Robbins. That's heady company in American literature these days.
"Personal Effects" is, at its core, a murder mystery. In 1956, at the height of her career, Gilda is caught in a publicity photo surrounded by four teen-age admirers. She takes the starry-eyed youngsters -- who become known as the "four fans" -- under her wing. Each of them grows to love her, and each of them eventually becomes a suspect in her murder.
King Godwin is a young actor, trying to make a living by hustling and making porno films. Devon Barnes is a bright but innocent schoolgirl. May Fischoff is an overweight Jewish kid trying to impress her celebrity father. Inez Hollister is an abused child fighting her way out of poverty. Gilda gives each of them a push up the golden ladder: A phone call gets King a juicy acting job; Inez lands free-lance writing assignments through Gilda's connections; May becomes a big-time agent. So it goes.
For the next 20 years or so, we follow the five of them through their various battles with drug addiction, their spectacular-but-oh-so-meaningless sex lives and their flings with liberal politics. (And no, I don't mean to imply that liberal politics is in any way comparable to meaningless sex or drug addiction. Neither did Rex, probably.)
Finally, on Christmas Eve in 1979, Gilda is found murdered in her home, a bullet in her chest. Not only did each of the four fans have a motive, each was there on the fateful night. Watching the drama unfold is Billy Buck, a movie columnist with a heart of gold. He worshipped Gilda and is intimate with each of the others . . . and he can't figure it out either. At this point the plot is thicker than Roger Ebert's waistline and more convoluted than Gene Shalit's hair. Eventually though, Billy Buck solves the mystery, and if the denouement is as improbable as the plot, at least it is a surprise.
Reed's prose, however, is surprising only in its amateurishness. After comparing the sun to an exploding lemon, he mercifully lays off the metaphors for the most part. In fact, 90 percent of the language in "Personal Effects" is dialogue, and 90 percent of the dialogue could be transferred intact into the mini-series script. It's that bad. The only part that won't work for television is the profanity. The sex scenes are the usual dreck -- interchangeable with any you've read by the aforementioned masters of the genre. Note particularly Reed's adroit use of the one-word paragraph, a' la Jackie Collins:
"Devon was dimly aware of a voice -- her voice -- begging King never to stop.
"And then she was aware of nothing but her desperate need for him.
"And then, nothing . . . "
Or there's this bit of touching nonsense:
" 'You have such marvelous eyes,' she said smiling.
" 'You always looked away. What were you -- '
" 'I was afraid. There was always a party going on in your eyes and I wasn't invited . . . ' "
Gilda would have hated it.