Sunday, February 13, 1994
Los Angeles Times, Home Edition
Section: Book Review
THE GREAT L.A. NOVEL SET IN VERMONT; POOL, By Ajay Sahgal (Atlantic Monthly Press: $20; 210 pp.)
By: Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist, author of “Sad Movies” and “Carnival Desires,” lives in Seattle.
“Pool” is one of the most authentic Los Angeles novels you are likely to read and the beauty of it is that not a single moment is set in L.A.
Emery Roberts, a twentysomething movie star, has walked off the set of “Sun City,” a $40 million dollar buddy cop thriller, and gone to Vermont. The reader has no idea why. Emery, the narrator, also has no idea why.
“Pool” could have been subtitled “Portrait of an Unexamined Life” or “Why One Should Avoid Hanging Out with Young Actors.” Pointedly anti-plot and with ciphers for characters, “Pool” is nonetheless compelling thanks to Sahgal’s spare, cryptic prose.
“Pool” is “Waiting for Godot” for a generation whose gods are
celluloid. This first novel is funny, sad, and filled with shocks of
recognition, particularly for those who have ever felt lost in the modern Sodom known as Hollywood. “I can’t go on. I must go on. I can’t keep writing screenplays. I must keep writing screenplays.”
In Vermont Emery joins other Hollywood expatriates who are holed up at a farmhouse: a screenwriter, a fired CAA agent, and the “Sun City” producer’s alcoholic daughter and useless son. Along with Emery is Danny, a USC film school grad, the “next Phil Joanou,” who films Emery’s every move on videotape. Emery is oblivious to Danny and his omnipresent camera in much the same way that normal people in, say, Seattle, are oblivious to rain.
Necessarily lacking the physical details of L.A. – no Santa Ana winds, no sweet eucalyptic wetness in the air, no wild-eyed coyotes to run over in a Range Rover -“Pool” proves that L.A. is merely a transportable state of mind. L.A. is convincingly, disturbingly, brought to life in the Vermont countryside.
There’s all the vernacular, banter, celebrity fixation, and barely repressed anger endemic to Los Angeles. And it is not limited to the expatriates. When Emery visits the local bars, townie
girls fawn senselessly over him and their boyfriends want to kill him.
When the group needs money, they have a garage sale and there are plenty of local buyers for Emery’s used Yamamato blazer, and his unread copy of “Ulysses” – for the musical version with a score by Michael Bolton.
Only one character in the novel seems to have a goal of any kind: the screenwriter. He is building a pool in the backyard. And it is not just a goal, but an obsession. Though this is ostensibly motivated by the snapping turtles that roam the nearby lake in menacing packs, there is clearly more at stake.
Building the pool is the screenwriter’s raison d’etre. He envisions a cool, turtle-less place, a thing of beauty. What he creates, mostly, is a big hole filled with mud. And then the snapping turtles invade. This is one of the smartest, funniest metaphors for a screenwriter’s life that I have ever read.
“Pool” is chock full of wickedly funny bits that will be especially
appreciated by industry insiders. Characters make deadpan references to movies with hilarious titles and plot lines that are all the funnier because the joke-movies are no more absurd than, say, “Encino Man,” “Problem Child,” “Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot,” or any number of other wildly profitable movies.
“Pool” has plenty of set pieces that scriptwriters are paid to fill
pages with: a brawl, a roman candle fight, a car crash, and the big production number when an entire movie crew invades the farm house. What’s interesting is that these scenes read like parodies of what one would expect. The idiot-proof drama that makes these paint-by-number
scenes popular with studio executives seems to be intentionally filtered out.
The characters in “Pool” are so disconnected from what is genuine that they feel nothing. There is not much to be felt in a cliché. There is not much to be felt when nothing is valued. This valuelessness that kills the possible joy of these characters lives even creeps into the sex scenes. They’ve arrived young to what self involvement and constant indulgence invariably lead to: emptiness, burn out.
Hollywood, in the end, wins. Emery becomes resigned to his fate, and his fate is to fly first class, have beautiful strange girls beg to sleep with him, and make millions of dollars, without ever understanding anything about any of it. If this does not sound especially hellish, it will after you read this scarily convincing portrait.
Emery’s most redeeming quality is that he is mercifully free of the self-involved self-help posturing that substitute in Los Angeles for living an examined life. Even that requires more self-examination than Emery can muster. He does, however, perform Public Service Announcements for “Rock Against Fur.”
Pete Hamill, after hanging around drunks and actresses for too many years, came to a realization. Hamill recognized, as he put it, that he had been performing rather than living his life. He stopped drinking. This saved him.
The characters in Sahgal’s novel are light years away from this kind of realization, and probably incapable of the kind of action that might save them. Sahgal wisely knows what about this is sad, funny, and, at moments, even moving.
“Pool” will not be a bestseller. It may, however, be destined for cult-classic status in Los Angeles.