DANCE WITH THE DEVIL
By Kirk Douglas
Random House. 306 pp. $19.95 END NOTES
Sexual menace and guilt are themes in Kirk Douglas's surprisingly pungent first novel, an exuberant follow-up to his admirable autobiography "The Ragman's Son." Many fans of the 73-year-old actor -- whose Oscar-nominated performances include "Champion," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Lust for Life" and whose productions include "Spartacus" and "Paths of Glory" -- will frankly be shocked by Douglas's dark and erotic piquancy. There's situational sex, prostitution, incest, extermination, suicide, a me'nage a` trois -- and that's in the first 50 pages.
The novel -- in the Judith Krantz-Sidney Sheldon vein with nippy, deeper characterizations -- juxtaposes in its first half, chapter by chapter, the life of Danny Dennison, a 55-year-old film director, with the salacious adventures of Luba, a young Polish courtesan.
It begins with their meeting, as the movie director of teen epics picks a dark-haired beauty as an extra, and their subsequent sex play. Then it flashes back to 1944 in San Sabba Concentration Camp in Trieste, Italy, where 12-year-old Moishe, his grandfather and his sister (who sleeps with the camp's commandant -- uncliched for once) are prisoners. Upon liberation, Moishe is asked his name by a black American soldier, and the young man, remembering the name of a Gypsy boy, blurts out, "Daniel." Thus this becomes Moishe's deep secret for life. (Trivia fans: Kirk Douglas's real surname is Danielovitch.)
Danny is transferred to a Catholic orphanage, where he becomes a fanatic for American movies and then is adopted by English teacher Margaret Dennison and her elderly, sickly husband. When Daniel is 16 the seemingly staid Mrs. Dennison lets her hair down and plops into Daniel's bed. To escape the grasp of his stepmother he accepts a scholarship to the University of Southern California's Institute of Arts, where his film career is launched. It is here that Danny is greeted with his first dose of antisemitism: The most prestigious fraternity on campus traditionally excludes Jews. Danny's self-loathing is so intense that he blackballs a star Jewish athlete from the fraternity.
Danny becomes -- unhappily for the most part -- the director of westerns based on his beloved classics. He marries Stephanie Stoneham, a neurotic, lovely young woman who is almost completely under the thumb of her famous Wall Street father, J.L. Although J.L. disinherits her, Stephanie marries Danny and becomes a raving alcoholic, but not before she gives birth to their daughter, Patricia. Later, Patricia becomes a pawn in an all-out war with J.L., who threatens to reveal that Danny is a Jew. "You're lucky you didn't end up in the oven," that nice J.L. says. (Since when in today's Hollywood is it a crime to be a Jew? It's a question Douglas never comes to grips with.)
Meanwhile, Luba grows up in communist Poland with her prostitute mother. Sexually precocious, she seduces her uncle and piles into bed with her mother's boyfriends. In London, she becomes a part-time call girl and enjoys an off-and-on relationship with Danny. She plays Scheherazade to Danny's fascinated, captivated king, relating wildly true stories about her extravagant past and current lifestyle. "Shame was not even in her vocabulary." But then she goes too far: getting Danny involved in a me'nage a` trois with the neighborhood paperboy. Danny slaps her across the face and leaves in a fit of self-loathing.
"Dance With the Devil" ("You lock arms with the Devil, and he makes you dance to his tune") is about -- you guessed it -- Danny's search for redemption, his quest for release from the guilty shackles of his life: his secret life as a Jew, his wasteful life as a director of mostly moronic pictures, his weakness in not fighting harder for his daughter and his coming to terms with the dark sexual passions of his life. In a touching finale with Luba, he realizes that all fantasies are not meant to be.
Kirk Douglas has a winner on his hands. Not only is it juicily readable (I gulped it down in a single sitting), it has the charm, sophistication and insight of some of actor Dirk Bogarde's well-received work. Never mind that the plot machinations can be dizzying, the first half is infinitely better than the second, and one has to get past ridiculously swanky sentences like, "She scared him. In one orgasm, she had brought all his dead memories to life." Douglas brings to life quirky characterizations that one thought were dead in popular fiction. Move out of his path, Sheldon, Krantz and Collins, for Douglas has cut his way into the pantheon of highfalutin bestsellers.
Not bad for a ragman's son.
The reviewer is the author of "The Soap Opera Encyclopedia" and of "Guiding Light: A 50th Anniversary Celebration."