- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

SIXTY-SIX

By Barry Levinson

Broadway Books, $24, 271 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

If you have followed his Baltimore tetralogy (“Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon,” and “Liberty Heights”); if you have seen “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Bugsy”; if you have re-rented “Rain Man,” which won for him the 1988 Best Director Oscar … then his name is not unfamiliar. Indeed, Barry Levinson is an accomplished, well-respected director, screenwriter, and producer whose list of credits in film and in television (“Homicide: Life on the Street” and “OZ”) have established him as an important cultural voice.

So why, then, has he written a novel? Why has he taken up a form that, while sharing some concerns and methods with film, has a whole other set of demands? Success in one art form does not guarantee success in any other, and Mr. Levinson’s first novel, “Sixty-Six,” is a good example of a less than successful move from the screen to the page, from director and screenwriter to novelist.

Those of us who admire “Diner” Mr. Levinson’s directorial debut, will find much of the same in his novel. Set in his beloved Baltimore seven years later than “Diner,” it revolves around five “Diner guys” who prefer, for different reasons, “Diner chat” to serious matters like career, love, personal and social responsibility, etc. These five friends, although several years removed from high school and their glory days, are, to varying degrees, about as immature as when they were teenagers. Each in his own way reacts to “Time’s winged chariot” with a lack of even a partial understanding.

Moreover, Mr. Levinson, no stranger to the elegiac, has created stereotypes to carry his spin on the cultural and historical forces of the mid-1960s: Vietnam, racial tensions, the Cold War, and hippies, to mention just a few. “Sixty-Six” then, is a rather obvious and thin coming-of-age novel.

Consider the five pals who sit for hours talking about very little that would interest serious readers. First, there is Bobby Shine, the star of the novel and the character whose development mirrors in many ways Mr. Levinson’s early life. Well, it is a given that a first novel has a good chance to be autobiographical to some extent.

Without giving too much of the rather flimsy plot away, it can be said that Bobby is an intelligent young man who, after quitting law school in his next to last year, gets his first full taste of the entertainment industry at a local television station. More deliberate about his future than his friends, he rejects his family by failing to live up to their expectations, a normal pattern for thoughtful young men and women. Unlike his buddies, however, Bobby has an unfolding plan for his future. Of course, since the novel is told in retrospect, the older Bobby is able to see the events in a different light.

Then there is Neil Tilden, one of those self-absorbed nonconformists who listens to a different drummer, one his pals can’t hear. Neil is bounced out of law school for refusing to wear shoes. Edgar “Eggy” Steinberg believes that the only safe and sane way to be involved with women is on a “pay for play” basis. Eggy is almost inseparable from Alan “Turko” Turk, and much of the humor comes from these two.

Turko is a bail bondsman who gets in trouble with a professional athlete, and who “was the type who thought Keane, known for painting women with waiflike eyes, was on par with Picasso.”

The last friend is Ben Kallin. First married, first into serious drugs, Ben loses a plushy job at his father-in-law’s Cadillac dealership when he attacks a delivery man who dared call him “Sir.” All in all, a rather forgettable group that Mr. Levinson uses to register changing currents in American life almost 40 years ago.

“Sixty-Six,” which refers not only to the date but also to that now mythic highway, Route 66, is not without its moments. Much is made of the city the boys, in their short lives, have watched change, and their nostalgia is affecting when the unabashed sentimentality that rears its head in Mr. Levinson’s films is kept under control.

“Sixty-Six,” then, is not what we might expect from such a talented, creative individual as Barry Levinson. There is too much pretentious philosophizing, and turgid prose. The narrative seems composed of mini-stories held together by “the Diner,” a symbol that, like the drive-in movie, is not strong enough to support the historical perspective of that turbulent era.

How can we take anything in the novel too seriously, however, when even Bobby Shine believes that the “Diner had informed us, shaped us. It was the magnet of the night. This little streamlined aluminum prefab building had pulled us in for years. A shining neon-lit confessional booth that held some of the most memorable moments in all of our lives.” Yes, we all had such places in high school, but we didn’t return to them. We found more important things to do. Watching Mr. Levinson’s films rather than reading his novel would be a better way to spend time now.

Of course, “Sixty-Six,” which seems ready for its director to cry “Action,” might well be turned into a new Baltimore film.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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