A wildly ambitious and entertaining novel that manages to be both slapstick and deeply tragic.
A lot is about to change in the summer of 1928 for moviemaking brothers Micah and Izzy Grand. The silent comedy in which they specialize is giving way to talkies, which the brothers and their financially beleaguered producer believe is a passing fad. The Roaring ’20s have loosened a lot of moral strictures, including race mixing, though racism remains as rampant in America as apple pie and baseball (Babe Ruth makes an early cameo in the novel and in the movie the Grand brothers are making). And the spirit of Manifest Destiny is soaring through both the fledgling movie industry and the country at large, where the cultural axis has begun to shift from East to West. Though Micah and Izzy are twin sons of Jewish immigrants, in some ways they could hardly be less alike. Micah is impulsive and insatiable; Izzy is repressed. Micah is the director who works on the fly; Izzy is the technician and cameraman who brings his brother’s vision to life on the screen. Through an unlikely combination of circumstances (plausibility isn’t a major concern here)—including Micah’s gambling debt, his love affair with the beautiful (and black) Rose and his producer’s financial woes—the film company heads to Africa to work on multiple projects, including one on the rise of slavery (co-written by black gangsters, as payback for Micah’s debt), that will provide counterpoint to Birth of a Nation. “Here they were, a gallery of misfits—a black kid, a Jew fairy, and a circus freak—halfway around the world, pulling levers on the American culture machine,” writes Conn (P., 2003). The trip profoundly affects both brothers—Izzy in particular—and the Africans they encounter, for if you “[p]oint a camera at something, you change it.” As a tale of two continents during a period of significant upheaval, this audacious novel encompasses not merely the essence of America and the art of moviemaking, but the nature of time.
To bring this full circle, maybe the Coen brothers could adapt the vision of the Grand brothers for the big screen.