Peter Davis knows Hollywood from the inside and has written a splendid novel about the great days of Tinsel Town with the kind of passion you rarely see anywhere these days.
Girl of My Dreams: A Novel by Peter Davis. Open Road, 475 pages, $18.99.
By Roberta Silman
Before getting into my review of this terrific, ambitious novel, which will surely be the book of our dreams this summer, I must confess that, like many people of my generation, I have always been in love with the movies. When my mother thought I was riding my bicycle in the still rural lanes of the south shore of Long Island on a Saturday afternoon, I had sneaked into the Central Theater where there was not one full-length feature, but two, plus a serial and a newsreel. Heaven. Television was just making its appearance, but how could it compete with the new technicolor? And what was Milton Berle compared to Van Heflin, Cornel Wilde, Vincent Price, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper? Or Lucille Ball compared to the smoldering mysteriousness of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Haviland? We knew everything about them, thanks to Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Or thought we did.
That’s why Girl of My Dreams is such a wonderful read. Born in the mid-thirties, the son of writers Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Peter Davis knows Hollywood from the inside and has written a splendid novel about the great days of Tinsel Town with the kind of passion you rarely see anywhere these days. Through the eyes of young Owen Jant, a Fitzgerald-like character who comes to Hollywood as a young screen writer, Davis gives us a Hollywood that is authentic and thrilling, especially at the end when you realize how serious this writer is. For when people say that everything starts in California (e.g. the recent news about climate change or the minimum wage) they are right, and here, in Girl of My Dreams, we can see the start of the narcissism, the inequality, the topsy-turvy values that we are dealing with today.
Moreover, like every age in America, this was an age of politics: it is 1934, the midst of the Depression, and there are Communists, called Reds and Pinkos and other unprintable names, stirring up trouble while the very rich live above it all, caring only for profit, disgusting in their greed, and riding almost as high as they are doing today. All this makes for lots of intrigue which Davis captures so deftly you always know where you are in this story, which teems with characters and ideas and sex and sorrow. Yet as you read you begin to think: Has anything changed?
The girl of everyone’s dreams is Palmyra Millevoix, who is as tough as the African palm she is named for and as smart as the thousand voices she comes to represent by the end of the novel. She seems to have come from nowhere, by way of Europe, was a nurse during the First World War, had a liaison with a never identified man which gave her a six-year old daughter named Millie (cared for by the loving and feisty Filipina, Costanza), had an aborted film career as Pamela Miles, and is now back with her real name and an aura as enigmatic as Garbo’s.
Not only is Pammy beautiful, but she writes and sings her own songs, and has been earmarked as the big star of Jubilee Pictures run by the infamous Amos Zangwill, known to his intimates as Mossy. Real characters pop up with a startling casualness and join the imagined figures (many of whom are probably based on real people) as they go to restaurants, languish around pools, get dressed in their fabulously stupid outfits, attend Mossy’s outrageous parties and movie premieres, go to bed with anyone and everyone, gossip compulsively, talk endlessly about the movies they are working on and the movies that have been shelved, and, towards the end, find themselves at Communist parties and labor rallies.
Owen records all this — sometimes earnestly, sometimes sardonically, sometimes even maliciously — with the increasing skill of someone who has kept a diary since he was young, a legacy from his mother. And also with someone who has had the benefit of a wonderful education, because literary allusions abound, sometimes in very funny ways. At times, though, when things get too painful, as they do in the chapter about his mother’s death, Owen tells his tale in the third person, but most of the time we are right next to this wonderfully sincere young man who has made the mistake of falling hard for Pammy, but who can hardly compete with the hard-boiled antics of Mossy who owns Pammy both in the studio and in bed, to the dismay of Mossy’s forbearing and likable wife.
So Owen seeks comfort with his psychiatrist, a Polish refugee named Pogorzelski, whom he calls Pogo, with the other amazingly smart screenwriters — Yeatsman and others who are equally literate — and, finally, with Pammy, who has become his friend, and little Millie, who has taken a shine to him and calls him Uncle Owen. Here is Owen on the process of making a movie:
The first writer, a former reporter, had been brought in to adapt a current novel. Writer number two came for scene construction and continuity. Writer number three, a playwright, was enlisted to brighten dialogue. Writer number four added physical and visual tension, screen pacing. Writer number five came for gags, despite the fact that the story was fairly serious. Then writer three had returned to touch up the dialogue just before shooting, after which number two came back to tighten the structure. Before all this happened, a reader had synopsized the novel, giving it three pages plus a recommendation, which was don’t touch it. It got touched anyway because Dick Powell loved it, or said he did, or someone said he did.
As the writers fidgeted, a door slammed in the outer office as Mossy returned from his errand and charged down his corridor. He began speaking while no one in his inner office could yet see him. “Over and done with, cut our losses, this is a baby only a mother could love, and I’m no mother. Picture’s canceled.”
But then, to everyone’s surprise, the now crying director and writers talk him into a revision and the scene ends with Mossy saying,
“Have the new script by Friday, do you understand?” . . .”One more thing,” said the chief. “I’m not in the complicated picture business on this one, I’m in the love business. The father, the captain, the guy in the boat, the blackmailer, they all love the girl. Go type me some love.” …
Control was not only Mossy’s goal but his gift. He could smell when a picture was going bad, and this was most often because he could smell the people on it losing confidence. He didn’t so much understand films as he did filmakers: writers, directors, producers, stars.
As he begins to understand the ins and outs of the movie business, Owen matures; the occasional preciousness in the writing recedes as Owen comes to realize that the west he has come to is not all make-believe, but real life. And when he is sent to San Francisco to research a movie about the 1906 earthquake because Mossy wants “a disaster worse than the Depression,” the book takes an interesting turn. Our witty, likable, sometimes clueless Owen, whose absorption in Hollywood’s idiocy had skewed his vision, suddenly finds himself in the midst of the long famous longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco in the spring and summer of 1934.
Although there have been clues along the way in the talk of Communists, Hitler, Stalin and what was happening to the Jews in Europe, as well as conflicting attitudes towards minorities and homosexuals, it all begins to come together in the second half when the writing becomes even more gripping and urgent. Now Owen is among real people with real issues, and we realize that what started out as a satire of the great age of Hollywood is also about social justice and heart-rending issues of survival. Just as The Great Gatsby is. Not only does the ghost of Fitzgerald hover over this novel, but also those of Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair and Dreiser.
Of course. Peter Davis was the director of the superb documentary about Vietnam, Hearts and Minds, and also wrote a book about America’s poorest Americans, If You Came This Way. The last third of the novel has a sweep that one usually feels only in the movies, and ends with a surprise that is as inevitable as it is shocking. As Owen puts it at the end:
The course of Palmyra Millevoix, viewed from the twinkling interval when left was right and right was wrong, or from the year she served in the blood bank during the First World War until she made tourniquets for the San Francisco strikers and mounted the platform outside Jubilee Pictures, has the arc and thrust of an appointed curve.
As do all unforgettable characters in the books we come to love. For Girl of My Dreams is a vivid novel with those time-honored Aristotelian virtues of setting, characters and plot, a novel with a beginning, middle and end, a novel about a time in American history that is not only entertaining and flamboyant, but also important and lasting. I cannot recommend it more highly.
Note: For our Boston readers, Peter Davis, who lives in Cambridge, is scheduled to appear at The Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on May 27th.
Roberta Silman Her three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again have just been released by Open Road Distribution and can be purchased as ebooks at Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Google Play. She has also written short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.