by James Hynes
Joel Zwilling, the title character of Ross Felds Zwillings Dream, is by his own admission a failed novelist. In his youth he published a semi-autobiographical novel about the son of two Holocaust survivors; it was a minor critical success, but his subsequent two novels sank without a trace, and by the present day of this novel, he has long since given up any desire to write. Underpinning this professional failure is a harrowing personal tragedy, the deaths of Zwillings wife and daughter (a twin) in a freak automobile accident. Now middle-aged and remarried to a lawyer named Barbara, Zwilling lives off inheritance money and investments in Cincinnati, where he doesnt do much of anything except worry about the surviving twin, his son Nate. Nate and his angry wife Polly are stars of zine culture, chronicling their life together in a popular journal, an effort Zwilling senior watches with bemusement and, as with everything else in his life, a frightened detachment:
This anxious detachment is sorely tested when Zwillings long-lost first novel is discovered by Brian Horkow, a once-promising filmmaker whose three films to date were box-office failures. A complicated deal is hatched, by which Nate will write the screenplay of his fathers book, Horkow will move temporarily to Cincinnati to scout locations, and Zwilling, stunned to find himself a property after all these years, will serve as a consultant.
The rest of this odd, sly, and extremely entertaining novel is an account of everything that does not happen: Nate does not finish the screenplay. The films financing falls through, and Horkow hilariously alienates much of Cincinnati before fleeing back to Marin County. Zwilling almost, but not quite, has an affair with Horkows tough, sexy producer, Selva, and in the end, doesnt even cash the check that Horkow gave him. And, as in Felds earlier work, at least one character is gravely ill. Feld has written about cancer and stroke in his other novels, and in this case Horkows daughter has cystic fibrosis, giving Felds sharp-eyed portrait of a Hollywood asshole real poignancy and depth.
The book is a diffident but beguiling performance, obliquely told and gently ironic, sustained not so much by storytelling as by vividly precise characterization and artfully colloquial prose. The chapters alternate between Zwilling, Horkow, Selva, and Barbara, and much of the book is devoted to extended sequences with minor characters who never appear againa rabbi whom Horkow tries to snooker into a land deal, a pathetically self-important local drama teacher eager to get close to show business. Fairly important plot pointsan estranged couples reconciliation, for examplehappen between chapters and are related in passing as the new chapter begins, as if were already supposed to know. But Feld turns diffidence and indirection into a surprisingly rigorous aesthetic; hes not so much muscling the reader toward a climax as he is gently urging the reader to see what might happen if we just go this way. My blunt explanation doesnt capture the charm of this technique: without seeming to, Feld teaches us how to read him as we go along, by reinforcing our feeling that were part of the family of the book, privy already to its secrets.
Indeed, Zwillings Dream is surprisingly good humored and warm throughout, not just for the books secondary subject mattersinanition, Hollywood, middle-aged desirebut for literary fiction in general. The main subject hereand the chief success of the book, not so paradoxicallyis an examination of failure and how to live with it; the way the characters talk about it, and confront the truth of failure, make up the small explosions of passion that illuminate their lives. Near the end, Polly, Zwillings daughter-in-law, confronts Zwilling with his own self-pity:
Its always risky to read autobiography into a novel, but this sounds to me like the author explaining something to himself. It breaks my heart to say it, but I hadnt even heard of Felds work until I was asked to review this latest book. His first novel Years Out (1973) is a little too youthfully florid for my taste, but his two subsequent novels, Only Shorter (1982) and Shapes Mistaken (1989), are witty and compassionate character studies, shifting point of view among large casts of characters like one of the better Altman films. On his literary merit, Feld deserves to be as famous as the guy who wrote Cold Mountain; so what does it say about our boomtown literary culture than books this good can be so little known? Pollys accusation, howeverthat Zwilling has no use for a truth after hes written it downgets at something more than mere commercial success or failure. Rather, shes invoking the lack of faith in the worth of writing at all that haunts every writernot just a lack of faith in selling a lot of copies, or in being able to reach an audience, but in simply getting across on paper what one originally had in mind.
Zwilling himself, even
after Pollys screed, seems to shrug and walk away from the whole problem,
but his creator has provided, in this lovely book, his own affirmation of the
worth of writing. Zwillings
does not come with climaxes or even a shattering
epiphany, but it does take the reader through a series of beautifully crafted
and wonderfully evocative human moments, toward a simple truth that even Zwilling
would agree with: you take what comes, and you do the best you can.