July 4, 1999
Wormwood” by David Levien
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times
This first novel was apparently written in the early to mid-nineties, but not published. Levien went on to co-write the screenplay for “Rounders,” a Miramax Pictures release starring Matt Damon, which was a hit.
Now Miramax, an organization known for its chummy relationships with artists, is publishing Levien’s youthful Hollywood novel.
These are not circumstances that would lead you to expect a good book, but “Wormwood” is a surprise pleasure. Nathan Pitch, the narrator, comes to Los Angeles with the requisite desire: “We wanted to get in, we wanted to make movies, we wanted to profit by this, to be made special from it.”
Pitch climbs up in the industry until he questions what he is doing, and falls. He becomes involved with the wrong woman – though at least she’s not an actress – and the wrong drink, absinthe. Wormwood is the root that gives absinthe both its intoxicating and toxic qualities, and it also gives Levien an apt symbol for Hollywood.
Levien knows the industry, knows its characters, knows their language and follies. He is insightful and truthful and clever. His weakness is his still-developing prose style. Related shortcomings include a tendency to explain too much – screenwriters are not allowed this indulgence and Levien runs amok.
Part of the mystique of Los Angeles is due to its peculiar environment: the palm trees, the sweet eucalyptus, the Santa Ana winds and so on. Sometimes it feels as though Levien intends to let a cinematographer and art director fill in texture later.
“Wormwood” is not quite artful enough to compete with classics like Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust,” or Joan Didion’s “Play it as it Lays,” but it’s certainly worthy of honorable mention in the Hollywood genre pantheon.