Five interrelated tales of a leftist family in Hollywood during the McCarthy years and beyond, from longtime fiction writer Epstein (Ice Fire Water, 1999, etc.).
Epstein’s father was a well-known screenwriter (he wrote the Casablanca script), and his portrait of Hollywood has an insider’s perspective. Narrator is Richard Jacobi, an aspiring painter whose father is a successful screenwriter and producer, and the stories follow an uneven timeline from the late 1940s to the near present. In “Malibu,” Richard, his brother Barton, and his recently widowed mother Lotte visit the beach house of Lotte’s dreadful French lover Rene, who tries to ingratiate himself with the boys. “Desert” moves back to describe the events following the appearance of Norman, Richard’s father, before HUAC—an episode that results in Norman’s blacklisting and may even bring on his death. The Jacobis are odd: Norman is a classic 1930s lefty; son Barton a Jewish anti-Semite who becomes increasingly deranged; Lotte a kind of southern belle lost in a harsh world of politics, art, and money; and Richard a sensitive artistic prig. Their fall is inevitable after Norman’s death, and eventually even the mansion on San Remo Drive must be sold, but in the title story Richard returns as a successful painter to buy it back and move in with his wife and two sons. There, surrounded by his dying mother, crazy brother, jealous wife, and the girl who was his first love and inspiration for his art, he discovers a new series of trauma and heartache. But the circle remains unbroken, and Richard concludes “that all art is created . . . from the images of our childhood, with its early sorrows and many joys, that we carry undamaged within.”
A modest work, but not slight. With a light touch, Epstein evokes the fear and exhilaration of youth—and the comforts and regrets of middle age.