Kirkus Star


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Boyd follows up on the promise of his A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War with a superbly entertaining, riveting work of major rank. From the remove of an isolated Mediterranean villa, disenchanted film director John James Todd tracks back over the course of his life, beginning with a childbirth in Edinburgh in 1899 that kills his mother and immediately alienates him from his brother and patrician father. Todd's claim to rigorous honesty in his self-appraisal seems genuine in his thoroughgoing coverage of an early, full-scale Oedipal attraction to his nursemaid--or is it mere reflexive ogling from a safe distance? The line between disciplined admission and casual fantasy begins to blur as Todd's story unfolds to show early exile in a school for ""special"" students, and an adolescent craving for his aunt (that Oedipal business again) that draws him from Scotland down to London. Fended off by his wiser aunt, Todd stumbles into a recruiting lineup at the outbreak of WW I, becomes part of a film crew systematically documenting the war, is captured, and while prisoner is given a copy of Rousseau's Confessions by an insouciant guard. Rousseau's dogged contempt for social gloss sets up the aesthetic under which Todd, after armistice, flees a humdrum career as commercial filmmaker in London and travels to Berlin. His erratic nature, like Rousseau's, takes him through several gradations of society (like Rousseau, he puts in time as a footman), before rising to the top as a leading filmmaker of the Weimar Republic. However, Todd's masterpiece, a nine-hour, three-screen monstrosity (something like Gance's Napoleon) is never distributed, and, by the time WW II heats up, Todd has begun a descent that will take him through 11 bad westerns in Hollywood, a HUAC investigation, and, ultimately, obscurity as a cult item of the art-house circuit. Full of wild swings and ironic inversions, Boyd's latest nonetheless holds together by the intensity and sheer drive of his modern-day Rousseau. Rich, thoroughly absorbing work.

Pub Date: May 16th, 1988
Publisher: Morrow