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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Publication Day: American Dream Machine
Matthew Specktor’s new novel, American Dream Machine, is out today. If you’re fortunate enough to live in sunny Los Angeles, you can see Specktor read from the novel tonight at Skylight Books. For the rest of you, here’s a sneak preview:
They closed down the Hamlet on Sunset last night. That old plush palace, place where Dean Martin drank himself to death on Tuesdays, where my father and his friends once had lunch every weekend and the maître d’ was quick to kiss my old man’s hand. Like the one they called “the other Hamlet” in Beverly Hills, and “the regular other Hamlet” in Century City . . . all of these places now long gone. Hollywood is like that. Its forever institutions, so quick to disappear. The Hamburger Hamlet, the one on Sunset, was in a class by itself. Red leather upholstery, dark booths, the carpets patterned with a radical and problematic intaglio. Big windows flung sun in front, but farther in the interior was dim, swampy. Waitresses patrolled the tables, the recessed depths where my father’s clients, men like Stacy Keach and Arthur Hill, sat away from human scrutiny. Most often their hair was mussed and they were weeping. Or they were exultant, flashing lavish smiles and gold watches, their bands’ mesh grain muted by the ruinous lighting, those overhead bulbs that shone down just far enough to make the waitresses’ faces look like they were melting under heat lamps. And yet the things that were consummated there: divorces, deals! I saw George Clooney puking in one of the ficuses back by the men’s room, one time when I was in.
Unless it was somebody else. The one thing I’ve learned, growing up in Los Angeles: it’s always someone else. Even if it is the person you thought it was the first time. I helped him up. I laid my hand on the back of George Clooney’s collar. He was wearing a blue jacket with a deeper velveteen lapel, like an expensive wedding singer. This, and white bucks.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” He spat. “They make the Manhattans here really strong.”
We were near the kitchen, too, and could smell bacon, frying meat, other delicacies—like Welsh rarebit—I would describe if they still had any meaning, if they existed any longer.
“I’ll buy you one and you can check it out.”
I helped him back to his table. I remember his touch was feathery. He clutched my arm like a shy bride. Clooney wasn’t Clooney yet, but I, unfortunately, was myself.’91? ’92? The evening wound on, and on and on and on: Little Peter’s, the Havoc House. Eventually, Clooney and I ended up back at someone’s place in the Bird Streets, above Doheny.
“Why are you dressed like that?” I said.
“Like what?” In my mind, the smile is Clooney’s exactly, but at the time all he’d said was that he was an actor named Sam or Dave or (in fact I think he actually did say) George, but I’ll never know. “Why am I dressed like what?”
“Like a fucking prom date from the retro future. Like an Italian singer who stumbled into a golf shop.” I pointed. “What the hell is with those shoes?”
“Hey,” he said. “Check the stitching. Hand-soled.”
We were out back of this house, whosever it was, drinking tequila. Cantilevered up above the city, lolling in director’s chairs. Those houses sell for a bajillion dollars nowadays, but then it was just some crappy rental where a friend of a friend was chasing a girl around a roomful of mix-and-match furniture, listening to the Afghan Whigs or the Horny Horns or the Beach Boys—my favorite band of all time, by the way—or else a bunch of people were crowded around a TV watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on videocassette. It didn’t matter. Mr. Not-Quite-or-Not-Yet-Clooney and I were outside watching the sun come up, and we were either two guys who would someday be famous or two rudderless fuck-ups in our midtwenties. He was staring out at the holy panorama of Los Angeles at dawn, and I couldn’t get my eyes off his shoes.
“Why am I dressed like this?” My new friend wrung his hands together limply. I ought to sell that fact to a tabloid, to prove Clooney is gay. “I was at a function,” he said.
“What kind of function? A convention of Tony Bennett fans? A mob wedding?”
I don’t remember what he said next. I think he said, I was in Vegas, and I asked him how much he’d lost. I probably gave him a sloppy kiss. I knew it was you, Fredo! There was an empty swimming pool nearby. It must’ve been February. Italian cypresses rose up in inviting cones, the scalloped houses dropped off in stages beneath us, and eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from up above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.
“I can never remember the words to this one . . . ”
“What,” I said. “It’s mostly moaning.”
“They’re all mostly moaning.”
George and I went digging into the old soul music catalog, to prove our masculine bona fides. None of those Motown lite, Big Chill-type classics that turdscaped so many of my father’s late eighties productions. We went for the nonsense numbers, the real obscurities. We sang “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” “The Whap Whap Song,” “Oogum Boogum,” “Lobster Betty.” A couple of those might not have been real, but we did ’em anyway.
“Thanks,” he said. “I was up for The Doors but I never got a callback.”
We spent the rest of the night drinking and singing. People blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender, forgiving. I love LA with all of my heart. This story I have to tell doesn’t have much to do with me, but it isn’t about some bored actress and her existential crises, a troubled screenwriter who comes to his senses and hightails it back to Illinois. It’s not about the vacuous horror of the California dream. It’s something that could’ve happened anywhere else in the world, but instead settled, inexplicably, here. This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than dear old Joan Didion.
“Don’t do that, man.” My voice echoed. I clapped my friend on the shoulder. “Don’t do the pleading-and-testifying thing. You’ll hurt your knees!”
“I’m all right.”
By the time we were done, we were deep into the duos, those freaky-deaky pairs from Texas or Mississippi: Mel & Tim; Maurice & Mac; Eddie & Ernie. Those gap-toothed couples who’d managed to eke out a single regional hit before fading back into their hard-won obscurity. My new friend seemed to know them all, and by the time we were finished I didn’t know which of us was Mel and which Tim, which of us had died in a boarding house and which, the lucky one I presume, still gigged around Jacksonville. Him, probably. He was dressed for it.
“I should get going,” he said, at last.
“Right.” Not like either of us had anywhere to be at this hour, but he needed to go off and get famous and I needed to find my jacket and a mattress. A man shouldn’t postpone destiny. “Later.”
We embraced, and I believe he groped my groin. After that I never saw him again, not if he was not, as I am now forced to consider, George Clooney. I just watched him climb the steps out of the swimming pool, into which we’d descended in order to get the correct echo, the right degree of reverb on our voices. This was what it was like inside a vocal booth at Stax, or when the Beach Boys recorded “Good Vibrations” at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. So we told one another, and perhaps we were right. For a moment I remained in this sunken hole in the ground that was like a grave slathered with toothpaste—it was that perfect bland turquoise color—and sang that song about the dark end of the street, how it’s where we’ll always meet. But I stopped, finally. Who wants to sing alone?
This is what I remember, when I think of the Hamlet on Sunset. This, and a few dozen afternoons with my dad and half brother, the adolescent crucible in which I felt so uncomfortable, baffled by my paternity and a thousand other things. Clooney’s cuffs; the faint flare of his baby-blue trousers; the mirrored aviator shades, like a cop’s, he slipped on before he left. It was ten thirty in the morning. I held a bottle of blanco by its neck and looked over at the pine needles, the brittle coniferous pieces that had gathered around the drain. Clooney’s bucks had thick rubber soles and made a fricative sound as he crossed the patio, then went through the house and out. I heard the purr of his Honda Civic, its fading drone as he wound down the hill and left me behind with my thoughts.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.