Tag Archives: James Robert Baker

Fuel Injected Dreams, James Robert Baker

Onyx, 1986, 322 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-40027-5

Dead authors rarely get reviewed. That’s how it works, and I’m no exception. While some scholars prefer a stable corpus, I’m like most readers: I love to splash into the boiling hot-tub of contemporary literature where reputations are made, new authors appear all the time and no one knows if the next novel will be a dud or not. Most of the books I review are books I buy from the bookstore, which usually implies a still-breathing author.

But there are exceptions. Used book sales. Premature deaths.

The world lost a heck of a writer when James Robert Baker committed suicide in 1997. Boy Wonder still figures on my top list of Hollywood novels: An angry, hilarious, knowing and over-the-top satire of the film industry, it’s as mean-spirited as it’s liberating. For years, I looked for a copy of his earlier novel Fuel Injected Dreams, hoping for much of the same. I finally lucked out… at a used-book sale.

Taking on the rock-and-roll music publishing industry through the lens of a disillusioned radio DJ, Fuel Injected Dreams steps on the accelerator from the first few lines and seldom lets up. Protagonist Scott Cochrane’s narration is fuelled by bitterness and illegal substances. He has never quite been able to forget the one lost love of his life, and seems determined to hasten his own exit through the usual sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll regimen. The first few pages read as if Hunter S. Thompson had remixed the familiar litany of Hollywood venality. The rest of the novel is just as intense.

Because Cochrane is about to stumble upon something everyone wants: an interview with Dennis Contrelle, a legendary music producer turned recluse after a string of classic hits. Without quite knowing why, Cochrane befriends Contrelle and ends up with what he thinks is a new single. But it’s not, and it sets in motion a series of events that reach back to Cochrane’s own teenage years. Could it be that he will finally learn the truth about his lost love’s sudden disappearance?

If that sounds sweet, let me disabuse you of that notion: One of Baker’s writing quirks is excess. If there’s a way to fit graphic sex and dripping violence in the story, Baker will find it. The result is a pedal-to-the-metal succession of shocks and twists, anticipating Chuck Palahniuk and Quentin Tarantino’s work by a few years and delivering a reading experience quite unlike another. Perhaps the one saving grace of Baker’s work is that it’s genuinely hopeful: otherwise, the bleakness and morbid obsession of his prose would be nothing but a freak show of burnt characters and violent excess.

Fuel-Injected Dreams is a case in point. While it starts reasonably well, it eventually turns into one of those novels where characters don’t die despite grave wounds, where the protagonist spends half the novel on the run from the authorities, to say nothing about the natural disasters, necrophilia, betrayals and media hysteria so prevalent in those situations. Oh yes, you will remember bits and pieces of this novel for a long time.

The writing is what ties it all together, of course. The narrator may start off sounding as the most jaded deejay in the history of radio, but that’s just illusion: it doesn’t take too many paragraphs for the veneer to crack and show his true nature as a moping romantic. Baker is capable of harnessing this desperation and channel it into a course of action that seems as inevitable as it is extreme. As a romantic thriller, this book crackles with forward narrative power. By the time the narrator heads to his high school reunion with a runaway bride and a gun, you can almost anticipate the fireworks.

This being said, the novel will appeal even more to those with a good grounding in sixties and seventies rock-and-roll: I could catch a number of offhand references to California pop music bands and fill the rest with what I remember from music of that era, but those with better memories of the period will probably get a lot more out of the in-jokes, atmosphere and musical references.

But even for those who can’t remember the sixties on account of not having been there, Fuel-Injected Dreams is a high-octane romp through a chaotic slice of South California life. At times apocalyptic and disgusting, romantic and hilarious, it’s a highly enjoyable read and a reminder of what remains when great writers leave too soon.

Boy Wonder, James Robert Baker

Signet, 1988, 560 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16506-3

Long-winded reviewer

It has become common to say that Hollywood is insane beyond imagination. But Boy Wonder one-ups every true story you’re heard so far, and that’s no mean feat.

Jacket Blurb

Cross CITIZEN KANE with BLUE VELVET and you’ll get some idea of this wide-screen send-up of the movie business as it follows the career of Shark Trager -rebel filmmaker and mega-successful producer- from his birth in 1950 at a drive-in movie theater and his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of Hollywood power, to his equally spectacular descent, crash, and burn.

Snotty critic, gesticulating

The real post-modern narrative breakthrough of this so-called comedy -for it is rather truly a savage attack on American values- is in its deconstruction of a traditional narrative flow into pseudo-interview excepts of fictional characters said to have known Shark Trager, but really; is the concept of cognizance truly meaningful, ask the author-

Eighth-grade student, struggling with book review

Mister Trager is not a good man at all. He does not like his father, does evil drugs and make bad movies.

Film geek

Both the best and most disappointing elements of Boy Wonder come from James Robert Baker’s handling of Hollywood excess through Shark Trager’s films. One of them, WHITE HEAT, takes the concept of the “killing couple” to its logical extreme, foreshadowing films such as NATURAL BORN KILLERS. The production of another, Red Surf, ends up with one of the most outrageously spectacular scene of a novel that already contains several moments of pure insane delight. It perfectly exemplifies the bigger-explosions-are-better mentality that pervades the atmosphere of certain blockbusters like, oh, ARMAGEDDON. BLUE LIGHT is the culmination of all those nonsense feel-good epics than mix half realism with half new-age pseudo-mysticism and end up attracting crowds for nothing more but simplistic philosophy and great production values. FORREST GUMP, anyone? Is it an accident if all of these movies came after Boy Wonder was written, or another depressing reminder that the real Hollywood often imitates fiction?

Long-winded reviewer

Beyond the simple satire, however, one could go crazy trying to plot the complex character interrelationships gradually interweaved during the narrative. Fittingly enough for a pseudo-biography, Baker has succeeded in creating a full fictional life, as unlikely as this life is.

Teenage guy

Hot damn! Fast cars, hot sex, hard drugs, big explosions, tons of deaths and one screwed-up hero! I didn’t read about any Nazis in there, but that’s pretty much the only thing missing. Wouldn’t it be sweet if there was one?

Ecstatic Bible-thumper

This reprehensible book has been sent from the flaming pits of hell itself! It has to be the raunchiest, most offensive novel in the past ten years! I will not subject you, dear readers, to the ignominy of a description of the perversions contained between these covers, but only take my word for it and avoid! Boy Wonder isn’t only disgraceful in itself, but it is an affront to society, family values and God itself.

Long-winded critic

Obviously, this very outrageousness is the core of one’s enjoyment of Boy Wonder. Part of the pleasure is reading the completely demented scenes of Shark Trager’s life and taking delight in how fantastically over-the-top this all is.

Film geek

Unfortunately, outrageousness takes its toll, and I started wondering why there wasn’t even more good stuff in the book. By the climax -which obviously takes place at the Oscars-, even public nudity, homosexual sex, heavy drug usage, constant bickering and a sudden death seem all a bit under-whelming. But that’s a minor quibble, much as at the end, I would have liked to seen even more films made by Trager. It would have been nice, also, to depart even more from the sort of alternate Hollywood created by Baker to accommodate Shark Trager.

Teen guy

More, more, more!

Long-winded critic

Ultimately, Baker has realized a tour-de-force, given as he can sustain, at the same time, his concept, his protagonist, his gallery of characters, his satire and his sweep of thirty years of history while presenting everything in a crystal-clear prose.

Teen guy

You know, I don’t like reading, but that book, I just couldn’t stop.

Long-winded critic

And so we come to the type of recommendation that every critic loves to make: A revelation. Boy Wonder isn’t a very popular book, nor is James Robert Baker a best-selling author. But Boy Wonder is worth tracking down in libraries, in used bookstores and in flea markets; it’s that good. Few novels approach its satiric edge or its extreme outrageousness. It is a memorable book and a great read. Do not miss it.

[September 2000: Good news, very bad news: While an official site exists at http://jamesrobertbaker.com/ (along with a present-day update on Kathy Pedro), it states that Robert James Baker unfortunately committed suicide in 1997. Grab Boy Wonder while you can.]