Dec. 7, 2007

“Zeroville” by Steve Erikson

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Steve Erickson first came to my attention in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Almost all the readers I knew — and there are more readers in L.A. than people imagine — were talking about “Days Between Stations,” a surreal first novel about the creative process, the unconscious, L.A. and movies.

At least that’s what I think it was about. None of us could agree about the book, other than we suspected it was brilliant, and we thought the scene of a sandstorm that swept over L.A. was cool.

Twenty-two years after this debut, Erickson has published an eighth novel that is once again, I think, about the creative process, the unconscious, L.A. and movies. I’m chagrined to confess it’s the first book of Erickson’s I’ve read since “Days Between Stations.” I may not be alone in this, however, as Erickson’s seventh novel, the well-reviewed “Our Ecstatic Days,” sold fewer than 2,000 copies. These are depressingly dismal numbers for an author who has been compared by The Wall Street Journal to such heavyweights as Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov and Don DeLillo.

“Zeroville” is published by Europa Editions, a small but prestigious house, and I suspect this trade paperback original is going to find an audience. In the parlance of the movie business, it’s “Being There” meets “Forrest Gump.” With only a thin plot, it’s a surprising page-turner, driven by a jumpy energy and short, cinematic chapters.

Vikar, the mostly passive hero, arrives in L.A. in August 1969, just after the Manson family murders. Things are edgy around town. Vikar has come to pursue his obsession: movies. Raised in a rigidly religious house where the only book allowed was the Bible, he is an enigmatic, wide-eyed innocent.

On his bald head is a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor’s kiss scene from “A Place in the Sun.” Vikar is infuriated and prone to violence when people confuse Elizabeth Taylor with Natalie Wood, or Montgomery Clift with James Dean, but is otherwise weirdly emotionless. He observes, but doesn’t analyze. When he speaks, he often parrots back ideas lifted from others.

“The Western,” he announces to a group of aspiring moviemakers, stealing his lines from an African-American burglar, “has changed along with America’s view of itself … and now you have jive Italians, if you can feature that, making the only Westerns worth seeing anymore because white America’s just too confused, can’t figure out whether to embrace the myth or the anti-myth … “

Vikar’s audience at a beach house includes many soon-to-be-famous real-life Hollywood characters. John Milius, future co-writer of “Apocalypse Now,” befriends Vikar. Robert De Niro, future star of “Taxi Driver,” takes a hairstyle cue from Vikar. Margot Kidder, Brian De Palma, Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw and others make cameo appearances.

One of the pleasures of the book is how deftly Erickson weaves Vikar through fact and fiction, capturing the craziness and adrenaline of Hollywood in its so-called “golden age” when mavericks such as Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were subverting the studio system.

Any cinema geek is going to love this book because Erickson, a film critic, is passionate about both the history of cinema and the mystery of cinema. The story, however, is bigger than Hollywood. “Cinema is metaphor,” a Spanish revolutionary explains to Vikar, “and this is one of the things cinema has in common with politics, which is often metaphor as well.”

Politics, punk music, television, movies, all the stuff of pop culture is here. Montgomery Clift, or a vision of him, even appears for the coda. Dreams, movies and real life merge seamlessly in this distinctly North American version of magic realism.