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The Second Coming of Moses Wine

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty-eight years ago, novelist and filmmaker Roger L. Simon was sitting in the backyard of his Echo Park home with a friend who’d just become the top editor at Straight Arrow Books, Rolling Stone magazine’s new publishing venture. They were discussing the manuscript for Simon’s third novel, his first two having “virtually no sales.”

“The book was about a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion. On the 10th anniversary of the invasion, he goes crazy and kidnaps the son of a radical lawyer,” Simon recalls.

His friend, Alan Rinzler, liked the downbeat manuscript but was not terribly sanguine about its commercial prospects. He wondered if the author couldn’t “do something that’s a little more . . . Rolling Stone.”

Simon, then in his 20s and a recent transplant from the East Coast, had been taking a crash course in Southern California atmosphere and attitude by devouring the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. “I tossed out the idea of updating the genre,” he said, “of doing [a book about] a private eye of our generation--hip, political. A longhair.” The concept was definitely Rolling Stone. Six weeks later, the book was written.

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Moses Wine, the hero of Simon’s “The Big Fix,” was something quite different in the world of private eyes. With the hefty personal baggage that today’s literary detectives tote from book to book, readers may forget there was once a time when the hired sleuths of fiction were die-hard loners nearly devoid of ethnicity, family, friends or any kind of interest other than the job at hand.

Wine was a defiantly Jewish, divorced, pot-smoking ex-Berkeley radical based in Los Angeles whose investigations were interrupted by weekend visitations with his two sons. His cases were a bit more cutting edge, too. “Fix” concerned an Abbie Hoffman-like radical prankster who attempts to destroy the presidential candidacy of a liberal Democrat. The book, an award-winning international bestseller, prompted Women’s Wear Daily to declare Moses Wine “the James Bond of the ‘70s” and was turned into a popular movie starring Richard Dreyfuss.

Now, publishing imprint iBooks has reissued “The Big Fix” and 1997’s “The Lost Coast,” the last in the seven-book series that picks up Wine at various stages of his march from lean and longhaired youth to wealthy and complacent middle-ager. The books, which had gone out of print, are being published in trade paperback editions that feature distinctive covers employing the eye-catching pop art of James Rosenquist. Over the next several months, the other five titles will arrive in chronological order, with Simon & Schuster handling distribution.

“The books form a unique arc of writing that mirrors an entire generation,” says Byron Preiss, president of iBooks.

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Simon has written new introductions to the novels, but he’s left the books precisely as originally published.

“How could I change them, update them?” he asks. “They represent different periods of my life.”

Then the books are autobiographical?

“Absolutely,” he gleefully admits. “Everybody who knows me knows that. The series reflects where I was and where I am. It’s my diary. I have to have some new thing happening in my life that engages me. I wrap a mystery around that. That’s why there aren’t more books. I’ve always been told that I should be doing one every year-and-a-half. I can’t. I can’t treat it like a television series, every week a new mystery,” he says in the airy Spanish-style home in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl that he shares with his wife, screenwriter Sheryl Longin, and their 20-month-old daughter, Madeleine.

A career in film has kept him busy between books. His entree was his first novel. “Heir,” published while he was still attending Yale Drama School, was made into a motion picture that, according to Leonard Maltin’s “Movie and Video Guide,” was “probably the worst of many drug films released in the early ‘70s.”

Simon agrees with that appraisal.

“The novel is dark, noir, about a guy who accidentally kills his girlfriend by giving her an overdose of heroin. Erich Segal, who wrote the script, tried to turn this into another version of ‘Love Story.’ The movie was a mess.”

Still, the sale of “Heir” to Hollywood was enough to jump-start his screenwriting career. He and his first wife, whom he’d met at Yale, were living in Los Angeles with their two young sons.

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“Producers read the book and liked the dialogue,” he remembers. “I lied to them that I could write a screenplay. I’d never even read a screenplay.”

His first major credit was his adaptation of “The Big Fix,” which made it to the screen in 1978. Since then, he has worked with Richard Pryor on the comedy “Bustin’ Loose” (1981); written and directed a teen comedy, “My Man Adam” (1985); been nominated for an Academy Award for adapting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Enemies: A Love Story” (1989) with the film’s director, Paul Mazursky; co-scripted (again with Mazursky) the Woody Allen-Bette Midler comedy “Scenes From a Mall” (1991); and traveled to the Czech Republic to direct the independent film he penned with his wife, “Prague Duet,” which was released in Europe.

“I like writing screenplays, and I like writing novels,” he says. “But the experiences are different. In order to write a novel, you have to have more to say about the world. Technically, screenwriting is more difficult. Screenplays are more concise, like a short story, which is also difficult to write.”

It was while he was in Prague that his “worst publishing experience” was taking place in the States. “HarperCollins dumped ‘The Lost Coast’ unceremoniously,” he says. In addition to not backing “Coast” with any publicity, the publisher canceled a contract for another book. “If I hadn’t been living in a foreign country at the time, maybe I might have had more control, but I doubt it. The company was undergoing a change in management.”

Thanks to the new iBooks edition of “Coast,” Moses Wine fans who missed the book’s inauspicious debut can now discover the latest entry in Simon’s unique diary. In it, the now successful detective realizes that for several years he has been “living the kind of bourgeois life I once reviled.” But the memory of his Berkeley days comes back to him when his son, a radical environmentalist, is accused of murdering a logger in Northern California.

“The book is clearly about the way values are communicated between one age and another,” the 57-year-old author says. “To what extent rebellion occurs and to what extent copying occurs. I’m a man with two sons in their 20s--Raphael is writing screenplays here in L.A., and Jesse is getting his master’s degree in painting at Hunter College [in New York]. It’s something I think about.”

Other things occupying his thoughts these days are the romantic comedy he and his wife are writing for actress Helen Hunt, a solo screenplay of his that he’s scheduled to direct in the fall and, yes, another Moses Wine novel.

“All I’ve got so far is an idea,” he says. “One of the things about our generation is that we’re not aging the same way our parents did. I think Moses is going to be trying to slow down the aging process. How he’ll do that and still have time to solve a crime, I’m not sure. But I am sure he’s not quite ready to retire just yet.”

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