Arts & Entertainment

Dark Passages: Where American dreams go to die

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America has long trafficked in the idea that so long as you have a sound mind, a strong work ethic and maybe a connection or two, the sky is the limit, and dreams can come true. Most of the time this idea is mythology, its metaphorical streets littered with broken souls who never came close or were within tantalizing reach of everything they wanted. And yet, the country still keeps this myth alive thanks to the scant few who do make it happen and the thousands, if not millions, panting for success.

Nowhere is the dichotomy between mythos and reality more prominent than in Hollywood, where nubile young things and those with serious acting and filmmaking chops flock to assert their right to a sliver of glory — or, if they are lucky, much more than that. So what if the price of fame means getting plastered on the cover of a tabloid or being abandoned by the moneymen when your ability to make money is compromised? Those are just painful ends justifying the striving needs of those with stars in their eyes. For some, they are attractive choices compared to more violent alternatives.

For Hugh Waters, the nominal star of Elizabeth Brundage's acid-dipped "A Stranger Like You" (Viking: 255 pp., $25.95), luck seemed to smile on him like the lady Damon Runyon's gangsters invoked while playing their permanent floating crap game. How else to explain a fat contract for a violent action-thriller script (written in a film class in Montclair, N.J.) that gets him around a dead-end job and a simpering, whimpering wife he feels little empathy for anymore? But the big break ends up cracking the wrong way when Hugh's 70-something, would-be studio boss champion drops dead of a heart attack. The boss' replacement — Hedda Chase, far closer to Hugh's own age of 38 — puts the project in turnaround because "she didn't like the premise."

The script is too violent for Hedda, and that has Hugh seething, to the point that he commits the proverbial no-no: He shows up at her house to give her the what-for. The scene plays out with absurd brio, both of them unconsciously mirroring aspects of the seemingly offensive script in question. As Hugh transforms from literary observer into active participant of a game he created, Brundage pans between a host of other fascinating figures, such as the Iraq war veteran now working as a parking attendant at LAX; the runaway teenager who manages to hang onto errant dreams of stardom as it becomes ever clearer she's nowhere near that pinnacle; a documentary filmmaker with ties both to Hedda and a young woman who understands the brutality of the Iraq war all too well. For each of these well-drawn figures, life is most definitely not a movie — and yet, none of them are able to depart from a script beyond their control.

"A Stranger Like You" operates at the highest tension point, and every now and then Brundage slips up and nearly falls off the wire (a second-person perspective point, for example, misses more than it hits). But truer words were never spoken than when Hedda, at a critical point, wonders, "they say if you think about something enough you are actually channelling the universe to make it happen." What was once "too violent," it turns out, is nowhere near violent enough, as fantasy and reality blur even more.

Unbearable tension of an entirely different stripe dominates the hearts and minds of the characters in "Chosen" (Harper: 310 pp., $25.99), Chandra Hoffman's unflinching and suspense-filled account of the pleasures and perils of domestic adoption. Instead of stardom, the dream here is a baby, but the same sorts of stakes, financial obligations and emotional rollercoasters apply to those obsessed by the dream. It's also why Chloe Pinter, the young caseworker for an adoption agency in the Pacific Northwest, is told again and again that she can't be good at her job if she has a child of her own. The pressure would be too much, and already she's feeling the weight of expectation imposed by many parties.

Instead, she's at the mercy of a poor biracial couple whose impending newborn is like catnip for a wealthy white couple, who've spent untold money and seen their desperation grow more pronounced as salvation and heartbreak are an equal phone call away. There's another duo who've run the same course of premature adoption syndrome only to be surprised by a child of their own, and there's also Chloe's longtime boyfriend Dan, finding far-flung ways to avoid commitment and its fertile extension.

As Hoffman switches between perspectives, building up portraits of Chloe and the couples she works for and against, what emerges is a wrenching portrait of the commoditization of babyhood and the caste system it perpetuates. When one country closes a door on their babies, another opens, and if there are local babies available to adopt, they become trophies, not living people.

No wonder Chloe is left to ponder "all of the connections, all of the lives she has touched in the last three years," thinking about "the things she said, the half-truths and omissions, the phone calls she made, or didn't make, at crucial moments." Because when the price of emotional well-being is a new baby, no wonder, as Hoffman reveals with a deft touch, the costs prove to be incalculable — and criminally catastrophic.

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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