By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Illustration by Stephan Britt
The dodo, for those who aren’t up on their ornithology, is a bird that became extinct late in the 17th century. Living on the otherwise uninhabited island of Mauritius, dodos, having no need to protect themselves from predators, became too lazy to fly and eventually lost the ability to do so. Then some Portuguese sailors arrived, bringing with them pigs, monkeys and dogs, and the grounded birds, uselessly flapping their wings, proved easy prey. They were also ugly, not very tasty and reputed to be stupid in the extreme.
An improbable unifying symbol for a novel, then, and even more so for a Hollywood screenplay. Yet Rick McCartney, the 20-something screenwriter of no visible promise at the center of Geoff Nicholson’s The Hollywood Dodo, is attempting to write an arty costume drama about a 17th-century Englishman with a passion for dodos, and has even managed to pitch the idea at a handful of meetings in Hollywood.
“It’s the story of a man who owns what he fears may be the last dodo on earth, and he’s trying desperately to find a mate for it before the whole species dies out,” Rick tells one baffled movie executive, who decides that what’s on offer here must be some sort of “ecological thriller.” For once in a scene between a writer and an executive, the guy in the suit isn’t the only one who looks stupid. Rick inhabits a lowly film world that, on a scale of touching ineptitude, lies somewhere between the collected works of Ed Wood and the hapless “auteurs” in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger.
But Rick isn’t stupid exactly; it’s more like he’s confused. “Inside this tan, buff, blond, Californian shell,” he tells us, “there’s a little bespectacled geek just itching to get out.” And the dodo-obsessed geek is running wild. Having decided that he’s “blocked,” Rick goes to a past-life therapist who transports him to 17th-century England while he’s lying on the sofa of her Venice Beach apartment. The vision is so vivid that Rick decides to go to London and do some further research into the dodo and, hopefully, his screenplay. There he meets an English writer and his girlfriend, has sex with them, and steals a manuscript from the writer’s study that turns out to be about . . . a 17th-century doctor obsessed with dodos.
On the flight back to L.A., Rick has a panic attack (who wouldn’t?) and thinks he’s dying. Henry Cadwallader, a tubby, tweedy, middle-aged English doctor, is summoned from first class to examine him. Having assured Rick that he isn’t likely to expire anytime in the next 50 years, Henry returns to his seat. Next to him, his daughter, Dorothy, is sleeping. Dorothy wants to be a movie star, and is flying to L.A. with an unshakable belief that she is about to conquer Hollywood. Henry, who’s a little skeptical about all this, has wisely decided to be her chaperone.
Whereas most novelists try to hityou over the head with every unconventional idea they have, Nicholson, an English writer (he lives part of the time in L.A.) who has written 14 novels in all, has the knack of wearing his weirdness lightly. It’s no small gift. Though built on a foundation of improbable coincidences, The Hollywood Dodois a magic carpet of a book that transports you back and forth between the centuries with masterly ease. Nicholson has a habit of giving you just slightly less than you expect, and of ending an episode a paragraph or two before you feel it’s ready for culmination. The result is that you keep hungrily turning the pages for more.
Another reason for the page turning is that he has a great story. Or rather two stories. One is about the bizarre Hollywood adventures of Rick, Henry and Dorothy; the other takes us back to the 17th century, where William, a former medical student with an incurable skin disease and a pet dodo, spies on the quacks and medical mountebanks of a chaotic, impoverished London neighborhood known as Alsatia, and reports the most egregious offenders against medicine back to the all-powerful Royal College of Physicians.
Novels with parallel narratives are often problematic because readers usually end up preferring one story over the other, and groan every time they have to return to the less captivating one. Here that isn’t a difficulty, however. The 17th-century sections of the book are fascinating and, in a deft, almost offhand way, enormously vivid. So much so that one begins to understand why Rick could have become so obsessed with William and the plight of what may or may not be the world’s last surviving dodo in the first place.
As for the titular Hollywood dodo, that would seem to be Dorothy, the would-be starlet who is in fact, despite her looks and youth and hunger for glamour, an almost total bore. Instead it’s her father who learns to adapt to his new environment, beds a former B-movie actress-turned-realtor, gets a stylish new wardrobe and shows every sign of having what it takes to be a star character actor. He also ends up . . . well, better not give away too much.