People who live anywhere else in the world tend to think of Hollywood as one big boulevard of broken dreams, a place where excess, glamour, corruption and sin all walk glibly hand-in-hand like Dorothy and her cohorts in "The Wizard of Oz." Maybe it's convenient to think of Hollywood that way -- "A nice place to conceive a movie with big explosions, but I wouldn't want to live there" -- but it's also naive. How could a city that's made and broken so many people be anything but dizzyingly complex?
Elaborately plotted and sharply written, John Kaye's shimmering debut novel nails that complexity: He never denies that he's in love with the allure of Hollywood, but he also acknowledges that it has the sheer brute strength to bust people's lives apart. In "Stars Screaming," set mostly in the Hollywood of the '70s, Kaye deftly interweaves characters and subplots into a story as elaborate as the braiding on a starlet's dressing gown. The central character, Ray Burk, is a network censor who hopes to become a screenwriter. The people who connect with him, closely or loosely but always significantly, include his beloved but troubled wife, Sandra, and Louie, their bright but strange little boy; Max Rheingold, a big-time producer (and a pedophile) who's reviled by everyone who knows him; and Bonnie, a middle-aged woman who heads to Hollywood by bus from the Midwest to tend to some unfinished business -- and with whom Burk falls deeply in love.
Kaye -- a screenwriter himself, whose credits include "American Hot Wax" and "Where the Buffalo Roam" -- knows how to make even an intricate story move along as quickly as a nerve impulse, and he understands how to use dialogue to shape his characters: "Burk bought a can of power-steering fluid at the Chevron on Melrose and Wilcox. On their walk back, Bonnie told him he reminded her of someone she knew in Detroit, an engineer friend of her first husband. 'Rick Hardesty,' she said. 'Same build, and you wear your hair the same way. Over to the side.' And a few minutes later, while they were approaching Burk's car, she told him why she got divorced. 'It's the same old story,' she said, 'He stopped loving me and he stopped touching me, and after awhile the parts of my body became as obsolete as the fins he designed on the 'sixty-five Bonneville. But, hey, that's all in the past.'"
"Stars Screaming" makes it easy to see why people fall so deeply in love with the idea of Hollywood that they ultimately trick themselves into falling in love with the actual place, too. In Kaye's terms, it's a paradise -- a gorgeous one, a filthy one, one where heartbreak is almost a way of life -- whose existence you couldn't possibly justify to a fair, reasonable God. Then again, it's a place that's neither reasonable nor fair -- and maybe that's exactly what makes it God's country.