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Book review: 'Tell-All' by Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk is as subtle as a straight right to the jaw, and just as bracing.

His 1996 novel "Fight Club" was a terrific meditation on the decrepit state of modern manhood. It had a relentless pace, brutal honesty and pitch-black humor.

Made into a terrifically disturbing film starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, the book showed Palahniuk's gift for speaking uncomfortable truths about taboo subjects, such as how the American male tends to treat his existential ennui with meaningless consumerism, tawdry sex and wanton violence. With fully realized, relatable characters and a terrific, compelling plot, it remains the author's best.

"Tell-All," Palahniuk's newest book, is equally ambitious. Part-noir mystery, part-historical fiction, with generous dollops of catty backstage gossip and smut thrown in, it has tons of plot and a cast of thousands. Palahniuk's theme remains the same: public image versus private reality, specifically, the phoniness of the former and the twisted, macabre nature of the latter.

But instead of a blockbuster, "Tell-All" is a bomb. Like many a movie that promises to combine action with romance, it delivers neither. A giant gasbag of a book, an unwieldy genre mish-mash, more confusing than entertaining, it lands with a thud as what the cigar-chompers in Hollywood used to call a "feathered fish" — a story with so many disparate parts that it neither flies nor swims.

If "Fight Club" is the high point of the author's work, "Tell-All" hits the canvas. And stays there.

The time is mid-20th century Hollywood and New York. The setting is the heady and intoxicating world of show business and celebrity. Katherine Kenton, an unstable, fading movie star, is a cross between Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" and the Joan Crawford of "Mommie Dearest." With eyes that would make Elizabeth Taylor envious, and the sexual appetite of Catherine the Great, Kenton is a caricature of the alcohol-abusing neurotic actress, living in mansions, loved by millions who know only her image, yet enslaved by her own desperate need to be truly loved by one person.

Hazie Coogan, the book's narrator, is Kenton's much put-upon, passively aggressive assistant. If no man is a hero to his valet, so no actress is admired by her maid-in-waiting. Kenton may be Coogan's meal ticket, the employer-employee relationship is misleading and toxic: "My purpose is to impose order on Miss Kathie's chaos … to instill discipline in her legendary artistic caprice. I am the person Lolly Parsons once referred to as a 'surrogate spine.' "

Kenton's beautiful vacuity may be the perfect palette upon which Hollywood has imposed hundreds of roles. But it has also left her vulnerable to the machinations of Coogan. "Miss Katherine Kenton and I do not enjoy," Coogan explains, "what Walter Winchell would call a 'finger-deep friendship.' Nor do we indulge in behavior Confidential would cite to brand us as 'baritone babes.' " Kenton would be better served if they were.

A cross between Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca" and Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (or, come to think of it, any Davis role), Coogan only appears to be a servant. In fact, she is the true mistress of the manor. When a gentleman-caller appears on the scene, Coogan feels it her duty to destroy the relationship, lest the multi-married, often betrayed Kenton obtain another "was-band." Yet Coogan's real purpose is to protect her own position, even at the cost of Kenton's health and happiness.

If all this seems derivative, that would appear to be the author's purpose. Palahniuk employs lists of old-time actors, famous restaurants, popular songs and various drugs as narrative devices, name- and place-dropping on every page to little purpose or effect. "On television, Leo G. Carroll kneels while Betty Grable crowns him Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Pope Paul IV is Robert Young. Barbara Stanwyck plays a gum-chewing Joan of Arc," Coogan writes.

It's absurd, perhaps funny and utterly pointless. Famous Stalin-loving liar Lillian Hellman makes regular appearances, though never to advance the plot, explain the character's motivations or provide much entertainment. Although no one hates Hellman more than myself, one would think it rather late in the day to throw dirt on her grave. Surely there are equally worthy, less easy targets.

In the end, only the most committed Palahniuk fan, reviewer or masochist will stick around to get to the book's final, big reveal.

Shapiro is a former federal prosecutor who writes and produces for television.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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