Signet, 1988, 560 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16506-3
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
More, more, more!
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.
You know, I don’t like reading, but that book, I just couldn’t stop.
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.]