By the time you read this sentence, Kevin McEnroe will have tattooed his grandmother’s face to his left shoulder.
Joanna Moore was her name, a blond beauty who appeared in films or on television almost 100 times and married a quartet of men — most notably the actor Ryan O’Neal, with whom she raised the one-time Hollywood wunderkind Tatum O’Neal.
“I sort of think she’s my guardian angel,” says McEnroe, 28, the first born of O’Neal and tennis legend John McEnroe, of his maternal grandmother. “The way she wanted to succeed, I hope to.”
He pulls up his short sleeve to point out Moore’s designated spot, giving a brief tour of the crowded real estate up and down both his arms — mementos of his cairn terrier Nate and his friend Gigi, both passed, as well as his three sisters and mom Tatum. There's also a quote from Hemingway — "We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other" — the one, he says, that turned him into a writer.
Our Town, McEnroe’s debut novel out this month, is based loosely on the rough trajectory of Moore’s life. The slim volume centers around Dorothy White, a sort-of-was actress from small town Georgia who spins out on booze and drugs and self-loathing in Tinseltown — a very Hollywood novel written by a very Hollywood son.
“Dorothy in a lot of ways is a part of myself that I’m very afraid of,” he says. “The sort of person who thinks so lowly of themselves that they’re afraid to succeed.”
The writer hails from a family of famously large personalities often treated as tabloid fodder. His father's caught-on-tape, on-court tantrums pretty much qualify as a subgenre on YouTube, while his mother became as well known for her struggles with addiction as for earning an Academy Award at 9 years old. They split in 1994.
McEnroe hasn’t been immune from his family’s troubled history or the media’s fixation thereon. “I was on the cover of the [New York] Post when I screwed up, just because of who my parents are,” he says, of a drug bust last summer in which he was nabbed for possession of prescription pills and what later turned out only to be baggies of baking soda.
But in the literary world, he’s already garnered some influential fans. His humane take on self-destruction in the Golden State comes blurbed by the likes of Hilton Als, Matthew Specktor and Peter Bogdanovich. He's discussing it now in a quiet, darkened corner of the Sunset Tower Hotel bar in West Hollywood, a perch chosen not in any attempt to hide from prying eyes, but rather from a mid-April heatwave glinting off the back terrace.
Tall and solidly built, McEnroe is dressed California casual in a loose t-shirt and jeans, close cropped blonde hair and black framed glasses, but in his voice he carries a hint of New York — the city where he’s been residing since a late '90s custody switch between his parents. Born raised until adolescence in Los Angeles, he's remained a frequent visitor over the years, locked in complex relationship with the West Coast.
“Every time I visit, for the first two weeks, I love it. And then I start to feel like I don’t know if I quite belong,” he says — at least not in the version of Los Angeles revolving around his mother’s Century City apartment. “I wanted to make [the book] about that, about my love for certain things and my disdain for certain things.”
Old Hollywood is one of those good things, he says, a place that evoked a genteel approach to fame.
Our Town opens in 1939, with an accounting of Dorothy’s origins that conjures Moore’s Wikipedia entry (e.g., who was born Dorothy Cook in Parrott, Georgia, among several other facts which later find their way into the book). Crossing the thin line between biography and fiction stemmed from his need to explore the concept of fame from deeply personal vantage point.
“The beginning of the book, to me, was almost the hardest thing,” he says. “Once [her life begins to fall] apart, I was like, okay, I understand loss and fucking up and getting in your own way. I didn’t know quite what it meant to be [in Los Angeles] and to be happy. I thought, maybe it took love.”
Though he only ever met his maternal grandmother once (she died from lung cancer in 1997), the story was initially inspired by a strange kinship with Moore that grew as he wrote. “Probably a year after I started writing it my mom was going through her things and she found this notebook,” he says. “Joanna was secretly writing these short stories.” Suddenly he had an access to her voice would prove crucial.
While writing, McEnroe drove around Southern California with a notebook in hand, absorbing the texture of the city until its hold on his characters became tangible. The rugged rural vibe around Acton and the arid Sierra Pelona foothills, the “platitudinous” pink valley houses, the moment a waiter realizes he’ll be filling water glasses forever. “In the book I always imagined that Los Angeles, for Dorothy, is a cage,” he says. Restless, she moves through the a host of neighborhoods — West Hollywood, Topanga, Encino, along with Big Sur and Palm Springs — each locale charting Dorothy’s emotional geography.
The process of telling her story seems to have precipitated a shift in his own internal landscape.
"Here’s the funny thing: I can’t say that while I’ve always been embarrassed by [celebrity culture], it didn’t feel good to sign a book for somebody. Somebody cared and wanted to shake my hand because they liked my book," he says, growing quiet momentarily before flashing a large grin. "You’ve got a be a real fucking asshole for that to suck."
Kevin McEnroe reads and signs Our Town at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Thursday, May 14 at 7 p.m. (310) 659-3110, booksoup.com.
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