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Life of a Dodo 

What 17th-century England and Hollywood have in common

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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.

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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 hit you 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 Dodo is 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.

What can be said is that watching Henry figure out Hollywood is a great pleasure. Seemingly set up to be the unwanted chaperone and bumbling middle-aged straight man to his daughter’s hip, fame-hungry vixen, he confounds the reader’s expectations. Set adrift from his daily life as a doctor in England, Henry quickly decides what he wants and how he’s going to get it. Though his Hippocratic oath does get trampled on rather badly, he grows in stature rather than shrinks.

Nicholson is very good at putting us inside the head of each of his characters, and then, once they’ve met up, having them consider each other. He also paints a knowing portrait of Los Angeles that takes us from mysterious movie specialty shops to the poolsides of Valley pornographers. Without belaboring the point, he sets up neat parallels between the 20th-century and 17th-century narratives, so that, for instance, the pretty, peg-legged Venice Beach past-life therapist visited by Rick is echoed by a limping but equally pretty apothecary who helps to disguise, if not cure, William’s skin disease. Without coming down on one side or the other, the novel keeps itself nicely open to the benefits and drawbacks of both the rational and more mystical traditions of medicine.

Likewise with its time-traveling theme. In one scene, Rick ponders the various reasons why Dorothy might want to have sex with him. “Because she found me attractive? Because I’d made her feel good about herself when I was taking the photographs? To piss off her dad? Because she was a slut? Because we’d had sex in a previous life?” The nice thing about it, from the reader’s point of view, is that all those possibilities seem equally plausible.

Since summer is here, I suppose I should weigh in on the question of whether The Hollywood Dodo would make a good beach novel. I think it would. It would also make a good restaurant novel, a good train novel, a good gym novel, and a good sitting-alone-in-your-apartment-and-reading-because-you’ve-got-nothing-better-to-do novel. It’s a good novel. Just don’t read it while you’re driving.

THE HOLLYWOOD DODO | By GEOFF NICHOLSON | Simon & Schuster | 323 pages $23 hardcover

  • What 17th-century England and Hollywood have in common

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