An unsettling and uneven blend of fact and fiction in a first novel about one family's involvement with John Wayne. Barden, a freelance writer, did in fact know Wayne: His father, a contractor, had done work on the actor's home. Barden weaves together a series of incidents in his fictionalized family life (including Wayne's attempts to help the family negotiate their misfortunes) with recollections of Wayne's private life. Among the confessional matters covered are Wayne's exuberant sexual appetite, his knowledge of his limitations as an actor, his dreadful insecurity in his decades-long relationship with director John Ford, and his increasing frustration with his (often suffocating) public persona. Apart from a pair of early scenes, one with his first girl, the other detailing an affair with Marlene Dietrich, the story focuses on the last decade in Wayne's life, when the fictionalized Frank Barden worked for him. Invited to Duke's Christmas party in 1971 after having renovated the actor's house, Frank gets drunk and verbally abuses his own wife, Lillian, who had been dancing with an old acquaintance while Frank himself watched Duke and his cronies play poker. The next morning, Duke, arriving to get the car he loaned to Frank the night before, presides over an effort at reconciliation, but Frank, still drunk and surly, refuses his help. Years later, Lillian visits son Danny in the hospital, where he's recovering from a painful operation; the two trade stories about Duke, who is, at that moment, lying in another hospital, close to death. It becomes clear that both the public image and the private man have had a complex influence on the lives and expectations of the Bardens. There are sharp, persuasive glimpses here of the reality of celebrity life and the agony of a family coming apart at the seams, but the novel remains an odd pastiche in which fiction and fact commingle without generating clarity or significant insights.
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