Beau Rosenwald is not a Hollywood pretty boy. He will never be handsome. He's 5-foot-8, 275 pounds. But as the narrator of American Dream Machine (Tin House, 460 pages, $25.95) explains, if you look at anything long enough, even Beau, even a street lamp, "it establishes dominion, a quiddity: it becomes itself."
This sentiment sums up American Dream Machine, the sophomore novel from Matthew Specktor. And it is indeed a good, long look at the Hollywood film biz from the 1970s to the present day. The result: Hollywood is not all bad. American Dream Machine thus manages to produce a creature with more human features than the standard "Hollywood novel." Referring to Beau's career as a talent agent, Specktor writes that "not only are there second acts in American lives, there were thirds, fourths, fifths."
Machine begins when Beau unknowingly impregnates two women, starting a story, ultimately, more about family than the film industry. One of his sons, Nate Myer, is the book's cautious narrator, and part of a trio that he, at one point, wryly calls the "Hollywood Princes." Often neglected as a child, Nate is willing to paint his father with both light and dark colors. Beau, from Nate's perspective, is a product of his humble Queens upbringing who ultimately earns enemies, ex-wives and millions of dollars.
But Beau doesn't fit the bill of a classic self-made man. He is neither bright nor cultured. He reads only one book, but it happens to be Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and it's clear that Beau approaches the 1970s film biz a bit like a Shakespearean bloodbath.
American Dream Machine is most successful when it channels this bloodbath, the dangerous undercurrent of Beau's often ambitious Hollywood maneuvers, but fails when Specktor chooses to pair Beau's story with that of Emily White, an intern at Beau's production studio who advances quickly in the film biz. Her story begins in the mailroom of a talent agency, exactly like Beau's 30 years previously. The close pairing of Emily's narrative with Beau's feels more like an episode of Bewitched than anything.
Showtime has already picked up the rights to turn Specktor's book into a TV series, with the actor who plays the serial murderer and forensic investigator in Dexter (Michael C. Hall) signed on to produce. This is perhaps fitting. The film business might be a bloodbath, but Specktor's lurid portrait of Beau and his sons is a thing of fat, hair and sweat.
GO: Tin House authors Matthew Specktor and Jodi Angel read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, July 22. 7:30 pm. Free.