A Literary Easterner With a Hollywood Muse

Fiction

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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The Golden West: Hollywood Stories

By Daniel Fuchs

David R. Godine/Black Sparrow Books, 272 pages, $24.95.

* * *

In his introduction to “The Golden West,” a new collection of Daniel Fuchs’s writings about California, John Updike places Fuchs in the company of similarly gifted fiction writers who did lucrative stints as screenwriters in Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker all went west, Updike notes, but they all came home again. What we know of them leads us to believe that their dalliances with Hollywood were instrumental and loveless, arranged marriages that didn’t work out, the divorces fast and easy, but harsh nonetheless.

“What can we make, then,” Updike asks, “of long-term Tinseltown denizen Daniel Fuchs, who in 1937 left behind a schoolteacher’s job in Brooklyn, three quite brilliant novels produced in his 20s, and a career of frequent acceptances of his short fiction by The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s to become one of RKO’s scribbling minions, and who never looked back with regret?” Fuchs never returned to live in the East, and while his fiction could make Hollywood look bleak and soulless, hardly different from what we see in the work of Nathanael West or, more recently, Bruce Wagner, Fuchs never allowed himself to become a professional Los Angeles hater. “Fuchs remains a rarity,” Updike writes, “a literary Easterner who never opted out or badmouthed the crass hands that fed him.”

Updike knew of Fuchs from his own early days as Fuchs’s peer at The New Yorker. His high point as a scriptwriter was winning an Oscar, in 1955, for “Love Me or Leave Me.” Fuchs was still contributing to publications like Commentary until shortly before his death in 1993, but I never had heard of him until this year. And I think it’s safe to say that he has been more obscure than the other obscure writers to whom we’ve recently come back — more obscure than Leonard Michaels, Edward Lewis Wallant or Steve Stern.

Those other Jewish writers, their characters and settings, feel familiar in the vague way a critic wants them to, easily placed in the proper company, ready-made for insertion into the canon. One can have fun divining what other authors they were reading, decoding who their influences were. For example, the suffocated New York of Michaels’s “Sylvia” feels to me just like the decayed, mid-1970s New York of Bernard Malamud’s “The Tenants.” But Fuchs, whose characters are Jewish but in a peripheral way, has immigrated to a land — Los Angeles — where the people are new, the money is new and the Jewish moviemakers and gentile stars and starlets all disappear their ethnicities in the solvents of fame, looks, image and chimera.

It’s a good thing to be atypical, and Fuchs is indeed not captive to any of his contemporaries’ New Yorky trends. That’s not enough, of course, for a lost writer to merit new attention, and there is much more to be said for Fuchs. Like Updike, I’m attracted to Fuchs’s counterintuitive nature, his eagerness to see moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn in the best possible light — as wonderfully, essentially American. In the short fiction and personal essays collected in “The Golden West,” Fuchs alternates between a kind of astringent, bemused fascination with Los Angeles, eerily detached, perfectly calibrated — think of Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” but less political — and a touching gratitude for the sparkly, potential-filled newness a Brooklyn boy finds in California. There’s something precocious in Fuchs, a child-eyed wisdom about Los Angeles that we can appreciate only in retrospect. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when L.A. was interesting to Americans mainly as a site of glamour and scandal — the place James Ellroy now so wonderfully recaptures — Fuchs had other angles from which to see into the city. It’s no wonder we lost him, but no surprise that he’s back.

It’s still a rare perspective — remember, most New York writing is no kinder to L.A. than Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is in “Annie Hall” — and a unique voice, but originality does not itself equal great writing. What makes Fuchs remarkable as a writer, not just a chronicler, is that his detachment is not devoid of sympathy. Reading “West of the Rockies,” a novella, originally published in 1954 in The New Yorker, about a divalike starlet and her amoral agent, it’s impossible not to be moved by how deeply Fuchs feels for these wealthy lost souls. It’s so “Sunset Boulevard” — the fading glamour, the evanescent fame — but it’s real people who are losing their sheen, and Fuchs makes us see that. Here is the agent contemplating the twilit career of the starlet, his client, whom he has selfishly taken to bed:

[M]using on her in this way, he could still see her bustling down the high school paths, rapt in the glow of that time, in the butterfly kisses, the women’s magazines, the competition and the thrill of expectation, all things then being possible and seeming just around the turn for the having, and it occurred to him, if these impressions were so bright and immediate in his mind, how much more recent they must be to her, and he could understand the fury in her, the rage of disbelief and bewilderment, now that all this which she had fought for so desperately was so soon being taken away from her.

Those words sound journalistic — it’s what a New Journalist could have done with Judy Garland when she was just past her prime — but also compassionate, in the way of the novelist. And they’re unmistakably romantic; you can hear the echoes of Fitzgerald. Fuchs is never so strong in his memoirs, his personal essays. One of the special pleasures of reading a collection of both fiction and nonfiction, united by a geographical theme, is seeing how a writer fares in the different genres; since he is writing about California in both cases, the comparison is really quite instructive.

In his fiction, Fuchs may be making stuff up, but he has a sense of responsibility about his make-believe, a commitment to show Angelenos in all their complexity, with their warts that a good tan cannot cover up. It’s as if Fuchs will only give himself permission to be inventive after first promising himself to use that privilege well. On the other hand, when Fuchs is writing as himself, he’s a little too giddy, in a manner that can’t help but seem coy or insincere. Being an outsider can concentrate one’s powers, but it also can lead to fits of unseemly satisfaction (ever talk to a New Englander who’s studying at Stanford?). Here is Fuchs in full-gush mode:

What impressed me about the people on the set as I looked on was the intensity with which they worked. In the late afternoon, which was when I would go down there, it seemed a mood came over them — a group of people huddled in a corner in the barn of the sound stage, lost in what they were doing, oblivious to the world…. They were artists or talented people — the photographers, set designers, editors, and others whose names you see on the credit lists. They worked with the assiduity and worry of artists, putting in the effort to secure the effect needed by the story, to go further than that and enhance the story, and not mar it.

That’s not transporting, but it’s very, very accomplished. Fuchs writes with enviable economy, whether fiction or nonfiction. It’s not showy and, like the movie artists he admires, he can go further to enhance the story but stop short of marring it. These short pieces are both contemporary — one story tells of a screenwriter who goes to the office and draws a salary but is never asked to write anything; it reads like a treatment for the film “Office Space” — and, as we’ve seen, elegiac. In them, Fuchs is occasionally great, often compelling. There is not so much plot, which I like, for that absence leaves space for Fuchs’s saturated, dense moods to inhabit. These pieces are united by an absence of cynicism. Fuchs believes that Hollywood types are not stereotypes, that starlets are knowable. In a place built on mirages, Fuchs refuses to lose faith that things can be seen, and people’s hearts can be known.

Mark Oppenheimer edits the New Haven Advocate and is the author of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America,” published this month.






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