In the course of his seven novels, Peter Lefcourt has made up some crazy and hilarious stuff: His 1997 “Abbreviating Ernie” is a hardy meditation on media feeding frenzies that opens with a sordid little scene involving a hungry Rottweiler, a carving knife and a male corpse with a hard-on. In the 1994 “Di & I,” a depressed English princess finds love, happiness and fulfilling work (as co-owner of a McDonald’s franchise) in America. None of these things, you say, could really happen. So why is it that Lefcourt’s audacious alternate realities are often more believable than, say, the idea of a reality TV show in which an adopted kid is charged with the task of identifying her biological dad from a lineup? Now that satire is dead, it’s time to make the case for Lefcourt as one of the foremost practitioners of American realism.
In “The Manhattan Beach Project,” Lefcourt revisits Charlie Berns, the hero of his 1991 Hollywood saga, “The Deal.” Charlie is a once-successful producer — he won an Oscar for his Benjamin Disraeli biopic “Dizzy and Will” — who has fallen on hard times. He’s lost his house, his cars and his girlfriend (she died after being electrocuted by a faulty lawn sprinkler), and he’s about to be kicked out of his screenwriter-nephew’s beach house. At his lowest moment, a shifty CIA operative named Kermit Fenster approaches him with a hot proposition: Would he be interested in producing a can’t-fail reality TV show about the life, loves and random sordid shenanigans of a warlord in Uzbekistan? Fenster has all the contacts; anything Charlie needs to pull the show together, Fenster knows how to get it. “You call it Warlord,” Fenster suggests. “How can you not watch that?”
Charlie and Fenster finagle a deal with ABCD, a rogue division of ABC Television located in — where else? — Manhattan Beach, and before long they’re crossing 13 time zones to meet the Diet Pepsi-swilling, Ukrainian-mistress-diddling, Tony Soprano-wannabe star of their show, Izbul Kharkov.
The cast of characters Charlie assembles for the show includes Izbul’s lesbian daughter, the warlord’s thuggish right-hand man, and a bipolar, hash-addicted, burqa-wearing hooker who works the Tashkent bazaars to earn money for her lithium. (She charges the equivalent of $5 for a trick, one character explains. “That’s only if she takes the burka off. She keeps it on, it’s a little pricier.”) But when Charlie sits down with his Uzbek interpreter — a happy-go-lucky Peace Corps deserter and part-time drug dealer named Buzz — to look at the material his cameras have captured and add English subtitles, he realizes that because his principals speak an assortment of languages, he’ll also need Russian, Turkmen and Ukrainian translators. Buzz’s solution: Just make the subtitles up. “How many Americans you think understand Uzbek?” he asks Charlie. And “how many of them are eighteen to thirty-four with disposable income?”
Lefcourt is a master at keeping increasingly insane plots aloft, and “The Manhattan Beach Project” is no exception, even if some of the story details are enough to make your head spin. (Sample chapter opening: “Izbul was in his office watching Oprah with Akbar when the rocket-propelled grenade launcher fired into his compound.”) And in the Lefcourt tradition, “The Manhattan Beach Project” is hugely entertaining and resolutely un-p.c., without ever being mean-spirited. Lefcourt gets laughs with his characters’ broken English, as when Izbul’s Ukrainian mistress asserts, “I’m trained actress. I do theater in Kiev. Hedda Gabler, Streetcar of Desire, Katz.” But even when Lefcourt pokes fun at his characters, he never leaves any doubt that he loves them — why else would he write such great lines for them?
Lefcourt isn’t just a novelist; he also has an extensive résumé as a TV writer and producer. (He wrote some of the best episodes of last year’s marvelous and, unfortunately, prematurely canceled “Karen Cisco.”) When he writes about Hollywood, you get the sense that he knows its vagaries all too well. In “The Manhattan Beach Project” he describes a reality TV show called “Kidnapped,” in which an unsuspecting average Joe is abducted and kept in a secret location for 24 hours, while his or her family negotiates the ransom demands. Viewers at home participate by logging their opinions online: Will the family pay the ransom or not? Do they think the abducted is really worth saving? “The subject would learn just how his friends and family felt about him before being told it was all in good fun, set free for a tearful reunion with his loved ones and given a series of prizes for his or her sportsmanship.” Even Lefcourt’s most outlandish ideas have the ring of truth. Leave it to him to find the realism in so-called reality.
Our next pick: A brilliant short story collection deliberately blurs the lines between fiction and fact