VIKAR JEROME, freshly arrived in Los Angeles, is baffled. After smashing a cafeteria tray over the head of a fellow diner who misidentifies the scene from “A Place in the Sun” tattooed on Vikar’s shaved head as having come from “Rebel Without a Cause,” he has to wonder: “Is it possible he’s traveled three thousand miles to the Movie Capital of the World only to find people who don’t know the difference between Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who don’t know the difference between Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood?”
Though this is the sort of rhetorical question a connoisseur of Hollywood -- David Thomson, say -- might ponder at length, “Zeroville,” Steve Erickson’s eighth novel, answers it simply. In 1969, when the book opens, movies have been shunted to the fringes of L.A.'s popular imagination. The city has fulfilled Nathanael West’s prophecy of fire, rapine, murderous rage; it has become a place where newly murdered film star Sharon Tate assumes mythical stature for having been among Charles Manson’s victims, not the other way around. But like millions before him, Vikar, the peculiar hero of “Zeroville,” has come to L.A. because of the movies.
After the police briefly detain him on suspicion of involvement in the Manson murders -- even by the standards of the bloody summer of 1969, Vikar is a freak, with his shining tattooed dome, his violent tendencies (he often imagines embedding nearby objects in the skulls of those who irritate him) and his odd lack of affect -- Vikar is set adrift in a “Heretic City” where film, at least the sort that George Stevens (or, for that matter, Nicholas Ray) made, has become irrelevant. He spends his time watching movies and wandering the city on foot and by bus (talk about heresy!), visiting local cinematic landmarks. Eventually, he gets a job as a set builder at Paramount. There, he’s taken under the wing of grizzled editor Dotty Langer (apparently a composite of such figures as Dede Allen and Dorothy Spencer), who happens to have worked on “A Place in the Sun.” Under her tutelage, Vikar begins to learn the editor’s art. (A passage where she explains the legendary dance sequence between Clift and Taylor is a beautifully lucid piece of film writing.)
Around the same time, Vikar meets Viking Man (much more definitively modeled on writer-director John Milius), who introduces him to a circle of movie-crazy friends, all budding directors, actors and/or moguls, with names like Marty and Bobby and Brian and Julia, who hang around a Malibu beach house. This spot-the-cameo business can get coy, but such allusions are sparing. Still, it can be a little hard to swallow the comically pompous dialogue Erickson places in their mouths. Discussing “Rio Bravo,” for example:
“ ‘The peak of Hawks’ art,’ one is saying the first afternoon. ‘Hemingwayesque in its understanding of masculinity’s values and rituals.’
“ ‘Dean Martin is underrated in that movie,’ Viking Man agrees.
“ ‘The opening scene,’ points out another, ‘where he’s digging the coin out of the spittoon? All wordless. A kind of American kabuki.’
“ ‘Existential,’ someone adds, ‘in its exploration of courage and professionalism even at its most futile.’ ”
Funny stuff, but are these people supposed to represent the ones who were on the verge of remaking commercial American cinema in the image of the art house? This is the depth of their thought? A reader begins to yearn for Don DeLillo’s Alfonse Stompanato, who with his colleagues in the American environments department at “White Noise’s” College-on-the-Hill conducts fervid discussions concerning their precise locations at the moment of James Dean’s death -- just the sort of pop cultural detritus that deserves such overheated depiction.
Although “Zeroville” is at times a comic novel (I like in particular Vikar’s encounter with a cinephile burglar, yet another blabbermouth with a subscription to Film Quarterly who calls “Now, Voyager” the “apotheosis of the forties studio system’s so-called ‘women’s picture’ ”), it is not at heart a satirical or parodic one. Nor is it a documentary novel of the film brats ascending amid the rubble of the studio system in the 1970s. Erickson, who is also film critic for Los Angeles magazine, manages to wipe clean the presumptions typically guiding the Hollywood Novel, which suggest either that Hollywood is irredeemably corrupt or that moviemaking is a tainted beauty requiring the ministrations of a pure artistic vision to recover its virtue. He embeds in his story a deeply thoughtful look at the art of filmmaking, not the pathology of the film industry.
Having posited from the outset film’s irrelevancy to the fads and terrors of the moment -- and art’s corresponding indifference to them -- Erickson makes of Vikar a naif, emptying him of typical human motives (picture Chauncey Gardiner hunched over a Moviola) to suggest that film’s ability to move and startle us transcends the sometimes basely commercial motivations of its makers. One of the fascinating things about “Zeroville” is that Vikar remains agape, endlessly impressionable, a conduit directly conveying to the reader the deep astonishment he feels at the art he finds himself consuming and making even while working his way into a position of authority.
Vikar soon arrives at his own peculiar aesthetic: “Each shot, each set-up, each sequence is in all times, all times are in each shot, each set-up, each sequence.” This quasi-palindromic phrase also mirrors the structure of the book, which consists of very brief scenes numbered in ascending order from 1 to 227, at which point they begin to descend again. He goes on: “The scenes of a movie can be shot out of sequence not because it’s more convenient, but because all the scenes of a movie are really happening at the same time. No scene really leads to the next, all scenes lead to each other. . . . ‘Continuity’ is one of the myths of film.”
The germs of these ideas may be Dotty’s, but their synthesis is pure Vikar. He becomes an editor with a reputation for rescuing troubled projects. Summoned by United Artists to work on a production awash in difficulties, he makes of the film a strange, counterintuitive piece that seems alternately to frighten, annoy and inspire awe in its viewers. At Cannes, where he is awarded a specially-created prize, Vikar is cheered and booed in equal measure, ultimately disrupting the festival at a press conference where his scandalous statements are made up almost entirely of remembered snippets of dialogue from friends, lovers, associates, even the burglar. Such “spliced” speech is a habit of Vikar’s -- “I vex people,” he often admits -- who otherwise is mute, unable to articulate his thoughts. His assessment of films that interest or affect him generally runs to “I believe it’s a very good movie.”
After returning to the United States, Vikar is nominated for an Oscar. His star rises, then falls, friends die, studios change hands, executives lose their jobs, projects are killed. (Erickson is not above exploiting conventions when they’re expedient.) Through it all, Vikar remains alone, in the dark, watching.
For the sometimes densely allusive Erickson, whose previous novels, including “Arc d’X” and “The Sea Came in at Midnight,” one may recall like the disjointed, receding scenes from a dream, “Zeroville” is a very straightforward book. Even its most obscure aspects function as elaborate motifs to which we grow accustomed. That’s not to say the book is void of numinous elements, particularly a long and straggly thread about Vikar’s recurring dream of a woman lying atop an open, tomblike rock carved with ancient writing.
But despite Erickson’s sometimes mystical take on film as medium, art and precursor of reality -- his ultimate revelation of Vikar as a kind of Prophet of Cinema -- the fact is that Vikar Jerome is a much more fascinating character when he is at the Moviola, determining the nature and shape of his artistic vision through looking and feeling, through juxtaposition and experimentation. At root, “Zeroville” is a novel about the nitty-gritty mysteries of the artistic process and about the evolution of an enthusiast into an artist.