Beau Rosenwald — an obese Hollywood talent agent–turned-producer — was used to having his movies fail. He also was used to raking in millions of dollars via films starring a monkey.
This time, however, the failure was monumental.
After the studio killed his script, Beau found himself holding his dog's leash in one hand and a bag of Labrador retriever shit in the other. He walked into his mansion built by the movie industry and stared at his wife — his fourth or fifth. Then he mashed the feces into his hands and began rubbing the brown all over his face.
When his wife asked in horror what was he doing, Beau responded: "How do you think I made my fucking fortune?"
Talk about indelible images.
"That's about encountering a new version of business and a different version of history," says Matthew Specktor, tapping the end of a toothpick on the wooden bar at Hollywood's Musso & Frank Grill as he talks about his fictional creation. "All of us will age into obsolescence. We will come up against a world that doesn't recognize us — or understand or give a shit that it doesn't."
Beau Rosenwald's complex personality is fleshed out in Specktor's sprawling new book, American Dream Machine, out this month from Tin House Books. It chronicles Beau's failures and triumphs, including several marriages, the tragic death of family members, professional betrayals and countless catastrophes.
While the novel puts the spotlight on Beau, it's difficult to tell who deserves to be called the main character. The narrator is actually Nate, whose stoned, Southern California affect serves as the reader's lens into Specktor's Hollywood. Nate looks at his world with a mix of skepticism and hunger for truth reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.
"I was conscious of the detective form," Specktor says. "On one hand, Nate is searching for a literal murder or death that needs to be unwound, but there's also a more figurative one ... answers about his origin." Throughout the narrative, Nate is trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Beau is actually his real father, and his best friend, Severin, is his brother — a knowledge that is initially hidden from him but not the reader.
Specktor, who has to his credit a previous novel and a nonfiction book, is a senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He acknowledges that his omniscient, first-person narrator mimics Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. "Nate is not the main character," Specktor says, "until he says he is. Beau is the book. Nate is a vehicle to approach Beau. I thought of Nate as a figure like Zuckerman in Roth's novels or 'Fuckhead' in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son."
In real life, Specktor's father is a renowned talent agent — which may be one reason the book achieves a memoirlike feel. Fred Specktor spent 10 years with William Morris and more than 30 with Creative Artists Agency, representing the likes of Kirk Douglas, Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito.
Now 46, Matthew Specktor graduated from the poshly progressive Crossroads School in Santa Monica. His childhood revolved around the movie business, providing him with an authentic vision of the politics and design of Hollywood.
"I gave [Nate] my background, my ignorance and my limitations — exaggerated some of my characteristics and invented others," Specktor says. "But it was having a mouthpiece in the story who can fail to understand Beau, as well as understand him later, that was so important."
This narrative device is one way Specktor hopes to distance himself from the "Hollywood genre," with its countless roman a clefs featuring naïfs who move to Tinseltown and struggle to the top, achieving the American dream only to realize it's all meaningless.
"All my life I have been close to the movie business," Specktor says, "and I have hated it the way most people who are in the business hate it, but I also love people in it. I love my father. I have very warm memories, and I feel that it tends to be slandered by and large in just about every novelistic or televisual representation I have ever seen. And I thought, is it possible to write a story that doesn't treat [Hollywood] as an object of satire or derision?"
Hollywood novels, he adds, "ultimately seem to come down on the idea that this is a poisonous place. It may be, but if so, it's no more so than the rest of the world. It's no more so than New York or Chicago or London or Paris."
Specktor's insistence that Hollywood is like any other place leads to one of his book's most endearing qualities. Even the title, American Dream Machine, suggests that the stakes here are higher than movie stardom; Specktor's taking on the universal "dream" machinery in Pynchon, in Bukowski, in (write it!) Shakespeare. So the book delves into the mechanics of perception and consciousness, the reality and the delusion. It's about throwing off the machinery of illusions and finding truth, with a quest for meaning that goes much deeper than seeing through the shallowness of Hollywood.
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"Wondering, as I passed liquor outlets and video stores that were going out of business," thinks the narrator while he's driving on the Santa Monica Freeway, "if the real question wasn't 'to be or not to be' but rather, who controls the dream? Who organizes the past in order to clarify the future?"
Specktor's book deserves a special space in the L.A. canon, somewhere looking up at Pynchon and Chandler. Even as the narrator searches through his past to uncover the truth about his family, the author is searching, too.
"[American Dream Machine] is the closest thing to the truth," Specktor says. "It's what I have in me. Good, bad, it's what I've got ... but I think this book offered me some sanction, some forgiveness, as hokey and stupid as that sounds, forgiveness for a very ordinary lifetime of human regret. If there is anything I would hope for a reader, it's that they can find some absolution or affection for their worst qualities."