Gripped by the ‘80s : It’s Hollywood, sex and endless drinking all over again : BETWEEN MEN, <i> By Fiona Lewis (Atlantic Monthly Press: $21; 329 pp.)</i>
Write what you know, goes the old saw.
In her first novel, Fiona Lewis, an actress who has written newspaper articles and screenplays, creates a 35-year-old heroine who writes screenplays and does show-business journalism as a day job. But the real story is her love life, especially her affair with a married enfant terrible film director.
Alice Wilder flees the New York home of her caricature-thin parents, an American doctor and a displaced Russian aristocrat mother. She arrives in Los Angeles to acquire, courtesy of her father’s phone call to a patient/editor, a staff position at the “local Los Angeles paper.” Before Alice can say, “We’re not in New York anymore, Toto,” she is writing about the film industry in her very own column.
While interviewing an actress on location, she senses sparks with the “controversial” director Oscar Lombardi, who amazingly (but what do we know?) leaves the set, follows her to her ’69 Mercedes, and asks about doing, uh, lunch.
“Actresses loved him,” we learn. “He nailed them where it counted. He praised them, slapped them around, destroyed them, rebuilt them, and taught them who they were. No wonder Alice was attracted to him.”
Alice knows he is married, but “for God’s sake, this was only lunch.” So she suggests he meet her at the vacant Malibu rental of her “sophisticated friend,” the actress Jessica Bing. “What was it about Oscar, she wondered, that was so unnerving? A man she had known for only a few minutes. Was she, in some wave of adolescent insecurity, drawn to him simply because he likes her? No, appeared to like her? And why pursue this, anyway? Didn’t she have enough on her plate as it was?”
Alice is already intoxicated by the time Oscar arrives with champagne and caviar (this is Hollywood, remember) and--wouldn’t you know?--it’s the start of one of those pesky affairs. It’s just sex. It’s love and opera. It’s over. It’s b aaa ck. It goes on and on.
On the dust jacket, “Between Men,” is billed as offering “a brilliant talent for observation--a writer attuned to the raw intricacies of illicit love.” What we get reads like “The Cosmo Girl Does Hollywood.”
But the oddest wrinkle may be the curious time warp gripping “Between Men.” Arriving as the ‘90s crest, this novel seems to have emerged full-blown from the ‘80s.
Characters revel in sophisticated drinking and coupling that reek of quaint nostalgia from the age of safe sex and detox. Never mind fidelity, condoms don’t exist. Alcoholics Anonymous makes a cameo as a de rigueur spot to gossip and troll. This is a world in which the lover’s wife drives a Volvo wagon, but there are no children. And nobody ever runs out of cash.
Oscar Lombardi is half the equation of “Between Men.” The other half is a “shockingly handsome” younger man, a cipher whose intermittent appearances seem planted only to counterpoint the affair-with-a-married man, and facilitate a denouement with (not enough of) a twist.
More than anything, the sensibility is dated: self-absorption, self-gratification and only the most requisite self-loathing, good for grandstanding, not serious enough to warrant moral inquiry or complex thought.
Alice juggles her men and runs to Jessica for advice and the essential bon mot . She is feverishly histrionic.
Even the cool Jessica rails: “Do you know what it’s like on location? Two months in some god-awful Holiday Inn waiting to go to work. Suddenly the grip with the tattoo cracks a joke and you think, well, this might be inviting. It might be better than watching TV every night in your cell. Of course, the old gag is still true: They don’t travel well. But you pretend. You tell yourself he’ll look very fetching back home, cleaned up, in a Ralph Lauren suit. And he pretends he doesn’t have a wife--whom he loathes--living in the Valley with his two lousy kids.”
So much Sturm and Drang ! Yet the authentic mess of life rarely engages these pages. The churning gnarl of feelings, instinct and denial are (endlessly) alluded to but rarely perceived, and then only through the tidy scrim the author has clearly (and unintentionally) constructed. This is not the mature narcissism of say, Erica Jong, but rather the wavering false mask of a writer who isn’t confident enough to use her true voice.
The good news is that occasional flashes of truth in this novel produce a momentary union between writer and reader--like the unexpected shock one feels catching a glimpse of a stranger who is almost simultaneously revealed as a reflection of oneself. These moments reveal a hidden message: This writer is capable of good writing. Maybe next time.