- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

PACIFIC TREMORS
By Richard Stern
Northwestern University Press, $26.95, 189 pages

Everyone knows that Hollywood devours most of its young. For every dreamer who becomes a bizillionaire mogul or movie star there are thousands upon thousands more who end up parking cars or pumping gas.
But the elderly do worse. If they have beaten the Hollywood odds and become successful, age bites them, leaving them in the hands of ridiculous upstarts who push them aside because they can.
For anyone writing Hollywood fiction, these are the parameters of stereotype, land mines for any would-be chronicler of Tinseltown's dark side, and only the bravest and the most deft should venture forth. Richard Stern has, and with his startling, deep, textured, poetic "Pacific Tremors," he stands down the cliches.
Ez Keneret and Wendell Spear are the aging Hollywood veterans who drive the narrative of this smart book. The action starts on Fiji, with Keneret eyeing a young Frenchwoman named Leet de Loor. With a little prodding and some not-too-subtle hints that she is in the company of a Hollywood producer, Keneret gets her to tell him the story of her life. And it is not an ordinary one. Leet's father was a Nazi collaborator who 15 years after the war ended was shamed and exiled to another town. The family saw him for a time until one day he simply abandoned them and moved to Argentina.
Keneret is inspired by the story (and her green eyes) and returns (with her) to Hollywood where he begins to fish for backers for a film about it that he envisions will help audiences "feel their blood connection to the ruined Europe of the forties, their lives reflected and expanded in his little narrative chip, Leet de Loor, his Gascon-Fijian-Los Angeles chippy." Along the way he is touch with Spear who after a long and successful career as a film critic has settled in the Malibu hills. It is Spear who, having come of age in England in the '40s, gets to toss some stunning retrospective lobs at Adolf Hitler.
Spear helps point Keneret in the direction of young writers who shape a script, and old Hollywood ties lead him to Daniel Duggan and Scholem Vlach the oddly paired backers who are at first intrigued by what he proposes. But very soon Keneret's plans are dashed when the money people see the early film clips that preview what it will look like as a finished product. The scene in which he is told of their decision is worth citing here for its chill:
"Saturday night, after the rushes were screened in Duggan''s screening room, Duggan, Vlach and Keneret sat in the dark for a long ten seconds. Even before Vlach touched up the lights, Keneret understood.
"Let's talk in the library," said Duggan. He led; Keneret followed; Vlach buttoned the rear… . Ten yards ahead, Duggan held the door, not looking back. A reproach. A plum colored hall lit with the lights over two Kandinskys, then the library an intimidation of gold-tooled leather sets, folios, quartos, and octavos bound in dolphin-stamped morocco, a few million dollars of the world's wisdom there to ratify their possessor and condemn his inferiors. Three armchairs, scarlet and green satin in a triangle around a seventeenth century Spanish traveling desk converted to a table … A bottle of Dom Perignon was canted in a bucket of dry ice, three gold-figured goblets stood on Damascus coasters. Whatever happened here was to be sealed by magnificence. Thought Keneret, A setup, but a small bird of hope still chirped away in him.
"At some signal from Duggan hand, eye, mustache, Keneret didn't see it Vlach noiselessly popped the champagne and filled the glasses.
"Vlach poured and said, 'Shakespeare quit in his forties, went back to his hometown, bought a big house. Occasionally they brought him to fix up someone else's script, but he knew when to retire.'
"'I'm not finished,' said Keneret.'
"'Scholem and I think you are Ez.'"
This rejection in the library a room which, with its gold and crimson and sharp angles might just as well be hell comes halfway through the book. It is an enormous disappointment because by then, Mr. Stern has fashioned in the character of Keneret a figure of such dignity and worth that the reader can't help but root completely for him. Characters have faults, but they are courageous. So one doesn't mind it too much when Leet ends up worth a fortune not from her work as a movie star but as a video entrepreneur.
Here families matter. Characters are not just walking bundles of ambition past or present who operate without significant ties. Thesy are real parents and grandparents. Moreover, for a novel about Hollywood, marriages are less in the spotlight than the offspring. And surprise the marriages are not on the rocks, and the children are not confused. They struggle, but they are not drugged or belligerent.
It is the relationship between Spear and Jennifer Abarbanel, his granddaughter, that gets the lion's share of attention. What Spear discovers is important in his life, how he conveys it to his offspring, how they respond as his health starts to fail is moving and authentic. Keneret and Spear rely on each other too, knowing that they share the same plight, but they are too smart to pick at it like two grumpy old men.
As the fate of each character is slowly revealed, the reader is treated to jaunty riffs and asides. Through Spear's eyes, we see a very particular critical intelligence at work, taking in a stunning array of film, art and literature. "Casablanca" and John Updike take their knocks. Joan Crawford's acting ("a form of exorcism that wants to get rid of everything but her makeup") is lampooned, but by his recollection a list of beloved artists is converted to music:
"The names alone were beautiful to him: Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartok, Toscanini, Walter, Flagstad, Melchior, Balanchine, Markova, Ashton, … Picasso, Brecht, Braque, Gide, the Mann brothers, and the moviemakers, Lang, Pabst, Murnau, Lubitsch, von Sternberg."
Moreover, pieced throughout the book, at the beginning of each chapter are passages of pithy film lore that have much to say about the state of Hollywood, the state of film, the state of the stories told there. But it is the words of Marcia Keneret, Ez's wife, that linger beyond the end of this playful, thoughtful novel: "When she met Ez, she was halfway reconciled to films. ("The Last Tycoon the book, not the movie showed her there could be greatness out here."
No less than "Pacific Tremors" does so now.

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