Winner of Britain's 1991 Whitbread Award for a first novel: a fact/fiction pastiche, using the life of 1950's pop-singer Alma Cogan (1932-1966) as the springboard for an intriguing but less- than-satisfying meditation on celebrity. Most Americans have never heard of Cogan. But she was a super- celeb in pre-Beatles, glitzy-showbiz England, with hit versions of songs previously recorded by Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, and others. Here, UK journalist Burn imagines that Alma didn't die in 1966, that instead she's alive in 1986, delivering a rambling monologue about her past and present. Alma recalls her beginnings as the child of stage-struck immigrant-Jewish parents, her first successes in seedy British music-halls, her introduction to assorted backstage sordidness. She remembers her heyday as a beehived ``work of capacious and total artifice'': the smelly crowds of fame, the parties where her mother charmed Noel Coward, her palship with Sammy Davis (who looked ``imagineered, cuboid, like a Picasso painting or an Easter Island sculpture''), her brief encounters with Doris Day and the Queen. But she also recalls her rapid decline in the 1960's, and her 1969 decision—while playing ``an armpit of a club''—to retire to a quiet, boozy, non-celebrity existence. And now, in the present, Alma conducts a grim tour of her bygone fame. In a storage room at the Tate museum, there's a painting of her; at a theater museum, there are the garish gowns worn by a female-impersonator version of Alma; and, most creepily, there's a visit to her #1 fan—whose vast collection even includes obscene messages to Alma from various sickies. Burn brings energy, vivid detail, and sardonic wit to this odd fabrication. But Alma's voice—literary, arch—never rings true; no real person emerges. The insights about the dark side of celebrity are predictable. And Burn's attempt to link the murder of Alma's soul to actual murders (the Manson case, etc.) is terribly strained. In sum: sporadically arresting or amusing, ultimately thin and gimmicky.
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