Oh, man, what a big, delicious book. I read Specktor’s previous novel and found his sentences to be superb and his scenes potently evocative. It was very easy to inhabit Specktor’s writing, to be sucked into it. But that earlier novel was a delicate evocation of (and dismantling of) a college summer, set to a rock and roll soundtrack. This time he decided to write a decade-spanning, multi-generational, “Hollywood Novel.” The earlier novel was the best cigarette I ever smoked outside of a club where my favorite band was playing. This novel was going to be a family epic, mapped onto 40 years of Southern California and film industry history. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be the best PACK of cigarettes I ever smoked outside a film executive’s office or while reclining in an empty pool in the hills.
The aromatic inhabitability of Specktor’s scenes is still in full effect, but in “American Dream Machine,” those scenes accumulate and interact as a puzzle working itself out into a real triple-decker of a novel. The reader and the guiding consciousness of the narrative walk together toward revelation. There’s a quality of following a Nick Carraway figure through a much longer, weirder party than Gatsby ever mounted, with a larger cast of mystery men. In following the trails of those mystery men, the novel has a whisper of Raymond Chandler, tying the arbitrary together into the inevitability of many, intersecting, lived lives. At the plot- and thematic-integrity levels, this novel hits both simultaneously. At the end, you’re both satisfied and thoughtful about things that matter.
One thing I appreciate (now that I’m reflecting on the book) is that none of the thematic interests ever become cliche. Retrospectively, “American Dream Machine” has all the traits of an Oprah book club pick: an American obsession (Hollywood), fathers and sons figuring each other out, a family saga that spans decades, a forty-something reflection on life. It’s all of those things without being freighted with any of them. The magic trick of this novel is that the American dream machine of the title isn’t really Hollywood. It’s your life, screened for you in the form of someone else’s story. I’m a slow reader with a full-time job, and I read it in three days.
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