Wormwood, D.J. Levien

Miramax/Hyperion, 1999, 247 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-7868-6506-7

Hollywood has burned as many writers as it has attracted. Simply put, there is just too much money and too much fame in Hollywood for it to care about merit, intelligence or talent. The Dream Factory consumes more fantasies than it produces, and all too often, these crushed aspirations are those of the powerless writers. Fortunately, what doesn’t kill a writer only makes him a better one, so it’s not an uncommon sight to spot a “Hollywood revenge” novel in libraries. Witness Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty

The fact that the publishing world is a coast away, in Hollywood-jealous New York, must be of some help.

D.J. Levien is/was, by some measures, a Hollywood insider. He is the co-author of the film ROUNDERS (starring Ben Affleck) and has obviously spent some time in Tinseltown before sitting down to write Wormwood. The result, an uneven but suitably readable Hollywood revenge story, is ironically published by a Hyperion imprint bearing the name of a major Hollywood studio.

Wormwood tracks the career path of Nathan Pitch, a young man who comes to Hollywood with big dreams but no particular talent. In short order, he’s reduced to working as a mail-boy in a talent agency oddly similar to the world-renowned CAA (Creative Artist Agency). A short while after, he’s even lower down the scale, working for an marketing outfit that could have been named NRG but wasn’t. As if to illustrate the fickle nature of Hollywood (or is it bad plotting-by-coincidence?), a chance encounter sends him off upward again. It won’t last.

It’s quite obvious from the start that Wormwood will try to be funny but that it won’t succeed because it tries too hard to be a morality tale. The grander-than-life nature of the Hollywood elite and the psychologically desperate people serving it are naturally comedic drivers. But, aha, given that this is a Hollywood Revenge novel, it cannot be allowed for the flawed hero to succeed. The whole moral point of the story simply won’t allow it.

Granted, there are a few choice moments, such as when Nathan uses whatever clout he’s got to start a bidding frenzy over a highly literary book. It ends up with a very rich author and a studio that realizes that it just bought a property that can’t be adapted to the screen. (Wormwood makes it clear that Hollywood People who pay aren’t the people who read; a strongly-worded reading report becomes holy writ as no one will bother to read the source material.) Other good vignettes take place when Nathan fires off anonymous memos or joke-scripts and sits back as the intra-office Gestapo vows to find their authors. But these are only small moments of mirth against the inevitable downfall of Nathan Lane. Rule number one of morality tales; you can only deserve redemption by walking away from corruption.

There is one big insight in Wormwood, and it is in how it describes Hollywood as some kind of gigantic feeding frenzy, where everyone wants to be in the inner circle, but where the number of applicants is so huge that those in the inside can practically do anything, install any hoop, indulge in whatever quirk they wish. Furthermore, there is no real inner circle: the competition is so ferocious, the supply of applicants sufficiently large that anyone bucking the system can be immediately replaced by someone who will abide.

Heady stuff from a novel, but to its credit, Wormwood manages to give out just the right air of desperation that fittingly describes what one would credibly imagine the real Hollywood to be. Does it correspond to reality? Who really cares?

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel isn’t as enlightening. The gradual self-destruction of Nathan Pitch is obviously inevitable in the context of this morality tale, but no less maddening to watch. Few surprises are in store once we realize the nature of the text. Other, better books of the genre exist, but Wormwood will do the trick if ever there isn’t anything more enticing at the local library.

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