"The Hollywood Dodo" by Geoff Nicholson

An aspiring auteur, a plump would-be starlet, an extinct flightless bird, plenty of sex and maybe a murder: The English come to Hollywood!

Published July 7, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

There are some novels that read as if they'd been written, painstakingly and gingerly, by hands in white gloves, every phrase weighed and polished and drained of any offending juice before it meets the writer's seal of approval. Geoff Nicholson is not that kind of writer, which is not to say he doesn't take care with his prose: His language is wicked, funny, elegant and precise. But his books feel alive. You get the sense he tears into them the way you might go at a delectably prepared chicken, not with a knife and fork but with your fingers, savoring the tenderest meat near the bone. There's nothing precious about Nicholson's writing; instead, it's sophisticated in the best way. His books are savory pleasures, as long as you come armed with a sufficiently dark sense of humor.

"The Hollywood Dodo," Nicholson's 14th novel, is a pleasing little black comedy about obsession (with stardom and extinct birds) and corruption (the book's most likable character becomes the most corrupt, and guess what? We still like him better than any of the others -- the Nicholson touch at work). The book is made up of three intermeshing narratives. One involves a 17th century medical student who's obsessed with a then nearly extinct bird and also afflicted with a strange disease in which exposure to sunlight eats away at his skin; another follows an aspiring director (his business card reads "Auteur of the future") who is obsessed, for reasons he himself doesn't understand, with making a movie about a dodo; and the third a 50ish, widowed English doctor, Henry Cadwallader, who treks from London to Hollywood with his daughter, Dorothy, to launch Dorothy's movie career. Dorothy is disagreeable and spoiled, but Henry is protective of her nonetheless. When she announces she's going to grab Hollywood by the balls, he worries about her, obsessing on the image: "No father wants to associate his daughter and testicles; he just doesn't."

During the course of the book, some very bad things happen, as well as some very funny ones: A 17th century dodo is used as a torture device; the petulant Dorothy learns that the camera doesn't love her pretty but too round face; and Henry believes he may have murdered a sleazy Hollywood agent, quite by accident, of course, but even so. In between, there's also plenty of casual sex between consenting adults, for those who like that sort of thing (and who doesn't?).

Nicholson (who splits his time between London and Los Angeles) gives us a pleasingly outlandish yet also very believable character in Henry: These are the adventures of an Englishman in a very strange, sunny land, and it's not as bad a fit as you might think. "The Hollywood Dodo" is about Hollywood and about movies, about loving them but not particularly wanting to be in them. Nicholson's books aren't for the faint of heart, and this one is no exception: It may be darkly fanciful at times, but it's never whimsical. And while the book's intricate tendrils don't quite tie up as neatly, or as satisfyingly, as you'd hope, it doesn't matter much. You could call "The Hollywood Dodo" a journey of discovery, viewed not through prissy rose-colored glasses, but through some very dark, sexy ones. This is Hollywood, English-style.

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By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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