The town where the laughing images are made transforms itself from Hollywood to Wormwood for the brilliant young narrator of this debut novel by screenwriter Levien, who coauthored (with Brian Koppelman) 1998’s star-heavy film Rounders. At 20, Nathan Pitch (as in “What’s the pitch?—) comes to Hollywood full of dreams about becoming a member of the creative side of filmmaking. He starts out, as have many top film folk, at the bottom, in the mail room of an agency, where he quickly learns that even on the lowest levels all life in Hollywood is on a this-for-that trade basis. Over a three-year period Nathan works his way up from secret script reader to full-fledged script reader to D-guy (script development) to story editor for a development agency—by age 23, at which point he’s a burnt-out shell and fired. His demise comes about partly from a growing addiction to the new Hollywood craze for absinthe, a drink whose highs leave its victims skinny and gaunt. Just as corrosive as absinthe, however, is the meretriciousness of every deal Nathan comes in contact with. During his stint in the trenches the one film he helps bring before the cameras is a breathlessly worthless piece of schlock. As he learns, his company is interested only in sucking up as many sweet development deals as possible and rewriting scripts over and over: Actual filmmaking kills the whole development process. A smartly groomed, episodic novel that ironically, in spite of its luridly cinematic moments and business knifings, is itself too literary to become a strong movie without cheapening its classiness with some outlandish plot twist. What of it? It’s still among the top savagings of Hollywood since Budd Schulberg’s 1941 What Makes Sammy Run?