#tobyreads: On Cinema, Generations, and Stories Told — Evocative Work From Matthew Specktor and Amy Lawless


When done well, there’s something I find particularly compelling about books that can weave the weight of years into their narrative. Whether it’s a biography that slowly begins to allocate a summary of its subject’s life as that life begins to wind down or an account of the later years of a fictional character that we’ve followed since childhood, there’s an undeniable power in these moments. The best books of this type give us the sense that we’ve come to know the people at its center, whether real or not. And it’s a measure of an author’s skill that they can make us care this deeply about someone we’ve never met.

I won’t lie — this was running through my head as I read Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine. Full disclosure: I’ve written a few pieces that Specktor has edited, so I’m not a particularly unobjective reviewer here. (Thus, feel free to take what follows with a grain of salt.) It follows the life of Beau Rosenwald, who moves to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to work as a talent agent there; it also follows the life of his son Nate, who serves as the book’s narrator, and whose perspective — darting in and out of the book’s more historical segments — reminded me a bit of the questions of authorship and perspective raised in Roth’s American Pastoral.

Beau and Nate also allow Specktor the luxury of dueling protagonists: one with more retrograde attitudes about certain aspects of life, the other far more sympathetic. Real characters blend with fictional ones: Albert Finney and Martin Scorsese show up, but other characters suggest funhouse mirrors of real people. (This gives reading the book an added element of fun: trying to guess the inspiration for some of the figures in it. And yes: I have several guesses here.) And how’s the book’s evocation of the film industry over several decades? Highly impressive: at times it feels like a shadow history of actual events; in others, Specktor left me curious to watch some of the fictional films that show up here. (It’s also interesting that Specktor is adapting Steve Erickson’s Zeroville for film — a novel which also brilliantly evoked Hollywood of the 1970s, albeit in a very different way.) Beau — a sometimes frustrating, passionate, and occasionally tragic figure — is a mesmerizing central character, and the ebbs and flows of his life and career make for a highly compelling read.

I’ve been trying to read more poetry. (I’ve also been trying to read more arts writing, but that’s a story for another time. Probably next week, if all goes according to plan.) To that end, I ended up picking up Amy Lawless’s distinctively-covered My Dead. It opens with a series of musings on the ways in which elephants die, which shifts from outright metaphor to something more nebulous, her imagery becoming (intentionally) blurred. Loss haunts these works, whether the intimations of mortality that occur throughout the book or the stark images of viscera and heartbreak found in “Body Science.” These are taut, memorable works; Lawless’s propensity for metaphors is impressive, and I’m eager to see what she has planned next.

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