Aging Japanese actor, a former silent-screen sex symbol, is offered a second chance at notoriety.
Revoyr’s third novel (Southland, 2003, etc.) is loosely based on a scandal of Hollywood’s silent era. It’s 1964, and Jun Nakayama, 73, is content to dwell in prosperous obscurity, monitoring his real-estate investments and hiking the Hollywood Hills. But troubling memories of his days as a controversial movie star resurface when journalist Nick Bellinger interviews Jun about his flaming youth and leading ladies, including siren Elizabeth Banks and Nora Niles, an ingénue dominated by a harridan of a stage mother. This being Los Angeles, Nick is shopping a screenplay with a star turn for Jun—as an elderly Japanese man who is mistaken for a former war criminal by his rural California neighbors. Although excited by the prospect of working again, Jun is loath to revisit the circumstances that prematurely curtailed his career in 1922. Seamlessly interwoven flashbacks detail Jun’s ascension to stardom despite anti-Japanese prejudice. Jun’s excitement almost overwhelms a nagging suspicion that a comeback might engender a deeper inquiry into Jun’s role in one of early Hollywood’s most lurid unsolved mysteries. Ashley Tyler, a British director, was found murdered in his bungalow. There are three suspects: Elizabeth and Nora, who each had romantic designs on Ashley, and Jun, Ashley’s rival for Elizabeth. All three are cleared, but Elizabeth drinks herself to death and Nora is forever consigned to her mother’s less than tender mercies. But the murder isn’t the only reason Jun is publicity shy. He harbors a guilty secret, which the hoopla surrounding a movie release will expose. Allowing a first-person narrator to withhold the truth until the climactic moment is a neat trick, one handily accomplished mostly through Jun’s convincing voice, which Revoyr conveys in lucid, precise and period-appropriate prose.
Although the pace lags in sections—notably a cross-country train tour which seems to occur in real time—all in all this is a pulse-quickening, deliciously ironic serving of Hollywood noir.