Cheat and Charmer, by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Frank, is a fat, historical Hollywood novel that reads like a tell-all roman à clef of Southern California during the 1950s witch-hunts. The book’s unlikely heroine is Dinah Lasker, a long-legged, stuttering Hollywood wife — and a snitch.
Rich, happily married to comedy writer Jake Lasker, mother of two, Dinah is called before HUAC investigators and given the choice between having her husband blacklisted or giving up names. Dinah haltingly cooperates and finger-points, among others, her starlet sister. Snubs, recriminations and life-altering guilt follow, although Dinah, it turns out, is scarcely the book’s greatest villain.
In fact, Frank has crammed Cheat and Charmer with betrayal, sexual misbehavior, sibling rivalry, backstabbing, social climbing and unrepentant egotism, all stirred together under the hot lights of Hollywood, with the blacklisting as a period backdrop. In other words, it’s a true literary potboiler. Dinah’s blithely philandering, pastrami-addicted husband is obliviously despicable, while her sister Veevi, an aging beauty, is a fabulous monster — a voracious mooch, a narcissist of staggering self-obsession and, most heinous of all, a merciless literary snob. Frank is especially amusing when parsing the international artistic hierarchy, where novelists reign, even if they must stoop at times to screenwriting, and comedy writers wriggle around near the bottom of the heap.
Frank won the Pulitzer for Louise Bogan: A Portrait in 1986, and Cheat and Charmer took her the intervening 25 years to write. Several times, when deep in those dense 560 pages, I feared the book would take me nearly as long to read. Certainly one wearies of Dinah’s denseness and passivity — not to mention her unfortunate stutter — long before she begins to smell the rat in her own bed.
While there’s nothing wrong with literary melodrama — many of the world’s great books deal with questions of who will sleep with whom, and whether or not they’ll get caught — Frank’s literary agenda often loses ground to the competing pleasures of soapy, potboiler fiction, with its superheated prose and inexhaustible appetite for gory details. Still, whether you see it as literature or guilty (if slightly tedious) pleasure, Cheat and Charmer will make a delicious movie — and be a casting director’s field day.
CHEAT AND CHARMER | By ELIZABETH FRANK | Random House 560 pages | $26 hardcover