In the shadow of the screen

Pauline Kael picks five favorite novels that have something to do with the movies.


Pauline Kael
May 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler (1959)

It's like a Dickens story told by Philip Roth. Duddy is the teenage runt from the Montreal ghetto who will become a movie mogul. When the unscrupulous kid asks his austere, educated uncle, "Why didn't you ever have time for me?" the uncle answers truthfully, "Because you're a pusherke. A little Jew-boy on the make. Guys like you make me sick and ashamed." This exuberant, richly satiric novel might be better known here if it hadn't come out of Canada (reputed to be the land of the earnest). It's vulgar in the best sense of the word.

Margaret in Hollywood by Darcy O'Brien (1991)

The late Darcy O'Brien, well known for such books as "Murder in Little Egypt" and "A Dark and Bloody Ground," was the son of two early movie stars: the muscular George O'Brien and the cool, beautiful Marguerite Churchill. Renaming Marguerite Margaret and making her his narrator, he tells the lightly fictionalized story of his independent-minded mother -- who instinctively, from the age of 5, takes pleasure in performing. He tells it in a succinct, levelheaded way. He may be the least fussy of all the writers who have tackled sensational material; he's not inspired, but he's blessed with good sense.

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Paradise Fever by Ptolemy Tompkins (1997)

The author -- the son of Peter Tompkins, who co-wrote "The Secret Life of Plants" -- writes in the first person; technically, I suppose, it's a memoir, not a novel. But whatever you call it, he's got a gift. The boy Tolly, who has deeply confusing feelings about his pop-guru father, is hooked on the hidden forces in grisly horror movies. Monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the ghouls in "Night of the Living Dead" are his special infatuation. He's haunted by them. At the end the author seems to pull back from what he has been digging up, but the first two-thirds have an unusual kind of intellectual suspense.

Three Squirt Dog by Rick Ridgway (1994)

A rowdy pop novel set in a hot summer in suburban Cleveland. The hero, Bud, has just graduated with a B.A. in English and is at loose ends, working in his uncle's used-record shop. Ridgway gets at the dumb hormonal energy of that time in our lives when sex and rock and movies are all mixed up together. Bud and his friends represent the knowledgeable side of shopping-mall culture -- "Debra Winger in 'Urban Cowboy.' Oww -- if you laid all the boners raised by that actress end to end you'd have a monorail to Mars."

White Hunter, Black Heart by Peter Viertel (1953)

Almost a half-century old, it's still the best Hollywood novel I've ever come across -- and it isn't even set in Hollywood. (It takes place in London and Africa.) Viertel worked as John Huston's whipping-boy screenwriter on the locations where Huston concentrated on hunting elephants and incidentally directed "The African Queen." (There's a matching portrait of a sacred-monster director in Richard Rush's free film adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel "The Stunt Man," with Peter O'Toole playing an ornery David Lean.) Viertel had the right background for the task he took on. His father, Berthold Viertel, was the model for the director figure in Christopher Isherwood's novel "Prater Violet," and his mother, Salka Viertel, collaborated on the writing of several Garbo pictures.


Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael was film critic for the New Yorker and is the author of "For Keeps" and many other books about the movies.

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