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American Dream Machine

American Dream Machine is the story of an iconic striver, a classic self-made man in the vein of Jay Gatsby or Augie March. It's the story of a talent agent and his troubled sons, two generations of Hollywood royalty. It's a sweeping narrative about parents and children, the movie business, and the sundry sea changes that have shaped Hollywood, and by extension, American life.

Beau Rosenwald—overweight, not particularly handsome, and improbably charismatic—arrives in Los Angeles in 1962 with nothing but an ill-fitting suit and a pair of expensive brogues. By the late 1970s he has helped found the most successful agency in Hollywood. Through the eyes of his son, we watch Beau and his partner go to war, waging a seismic battle that redraws the lines of an entire industry. We watch Beau rise and fall and rise again, in accordance with the cultural transformations that dictate the fickle world of movies. We watch Beau's partner, the enigmatic and cerebral Williams Farquarsen, struggle to contain himself, to control his impulses and consolidate his power. And we watch two generations of men fumble and thrive across the LA landscape, learning for themselves the shadows and costs exacted by success and failure. Mammalian, funny, and filled with characters both vital and profound, American Dream Machine is a piercing interrogation of the role—nourishing, as well as destructive—that illusion plays in all our lives.
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  • Page Count: 464
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: $15.95
  • 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
  • April 2013
  • 978-1-935639-44-2
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris ReviewThe BelieverTin HouseBlack Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

 

www.matthewspecktor.com

"Sprawling, atmospheric. . .[American Dream Machine has] a feline watchfulness and a poetic sensibility that echoes Bellow's and Updike's prose rhythms along with their voracious, exuberant intelligence."
New York Times Book Review

"Specktor’s prose alone is enough to lure you in: it’s sharply observed and nimble, like a more mischievous cousin of John Cheever, and his characters are wonderfully and deeply complicated, wounded and secretive."
The Millions, Edan Lepucki's Year in Reading (American Dream Machine picked as one of the best books of 2013!)

"Richly engaging. . .Specktor sees his Hollywood characters as three-dimensional and very human."
San Francisco Chronicle

"With coolness and precision, Specktor comes across as a West Coast Saul Bellow in this sweeping narrative, but his energetic, pop-infused prose is markedly his own."
Booklist

"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."
LA Weekly

"...Matthew Specktor's American Dream Machine [is] a big and generous novel that functions both as elegy for a recent past and fictional anthropology. . .it evokes a world with casual ease and unexpected tenderness, recalling and referencing lots of other fiction (both Hollywood and non) while contriving to establish its unique authority."
—LA Review of Books

"Specktor's great achievement is to make familiar territory original, the Hollywood novel born anew. It's bold, weird, and unforgettable, as startling as a poke in the eye.
The Sunday Telegraph Magazine

"Specktor does for L.A. what Hemingway did for Paris and what Hunter S. Thompson did for Las Vegas: create a character that lives and breathes a city. Like hotels in Vegas, we see characters rise, grow dusty, and collapse."
Daily Beat, Hot Reads

"American Dream Machine takes readers into situations that might seem familiar: the drug-fueled party at a star's house in the hills, tense meetings between executives, dimly-lit wood-paneled bars filled with players and movie stars. Yet Specktor's lyrical writing and insights into human nature elevate the novel into fresh territory."
Kirkus

"[American Dream Machine] is a vivid evocation of the entertainment business from the 1960s to the near present, an L.A. bildungsroman and a murder mystery, all wrapped in one. . .entertaining package."
New York Daily News

"[American Dream Machine] is an exciting, heart-rending fictionalized journey through the 40 years of Hollywood history. . .Specktor has woven Nate's and the town's dreamlife into the very fabric of his storytelling, and the result is profound, heart-stirring tale—comic, melodramatic, tragic, too—that brings the dark heart of Hollywood desire into the brilliant pitiless light of the California sun."
—Las Vegas CityLife

"American Dream Machine is grand, complex, lush, intelligent and lively, funny as hell and generous in ways you don’t often find . It’s also a strikingly original portrait of Los Angeles. People speak of Chandler’s Los Angeles, or Didion’s, or Nathaniel West’s. Someday, they’ll speak of Specktor’s the same way."
—Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine and The Devil in Silver

"American Dream Machine may be the first literature I've read in which Los Angeles is assumed as London is assumed by Dickens and Paris by Proust and New York by a host of twentieth-century American writers. There is nothing ironic, ambivalent, or apologetic about Specktor's relationship to Los Angeles—as it is and was, as myth and as a thriving capitol city. Los Angeles provides an animate pulse under the lives of these men and boys, a source of permanence that lends their struggles gravity."
—Mona Simpson, My Hollywood

“Matthew Specktor has created a great American character in Beau Rosenwald. He is full of contradictions, full of ambition, full of raw life, and yet he manages to seduce us. This riveting novel shows us the existential desperation that lurks in the dark hunger of Hollywood power mongers. Specktor gets every detail right, and American Dream Machine's sentences are suffused with an elegiac beauty.”
—Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia and Eat The Document

"American Dream Machine is the definitive new Hollywood novel. It's almost impossible to write now about the movie business without resorting to well-established mythology. Somehow, here, Matthew Specktor has figured out a way to do so."
—David Shields, author of Reality Hunger and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead

"This is the novel about Los Angeles that I've been waiting for—a mythical LA full of longing and distances and illusion. Specktor has captured the LA I know, the one all around me and the one in my head, a city of invention and grit, surface and underbelly. Funny, poignant, and gorgeously written."
—Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Sorry Please Thank You

“On the other side of paradise from Monroe Stahr and The Last Tycoon is Beau Rosenwald in American Dream Machine, the last agent who mattered as much to the movies as a studio boss. Against the backdrop of the possibility-plagued seventies, Matthew Specktor’s moving, witty, and irresistible epic captures as well as any novel in memory that time in LA when twilight could still be mistaken for sunrise.”
—Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville


PROLOGUE

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.”

“Do they?”

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.

“Nice pipes.”

“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.

 

American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way that’s incredibly vivid--it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?

 

LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision, and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, it’s hard to think of a great writer who’s treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero, The Day of the Locust, Play it As It Lays, The Player, What Makes Sammy Run. These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. That’s fair: they’re all great books, and I think literature isn’t where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business, which in so many respects isn’t much different from any other.

 

The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?

 

I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they weren’t especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents’ work, the people who made the movies were always around. I worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency when I was thirteen (I was the second person to join what would become a tradition—the “Summer Campers”), and I did coverage for their story department when I was in high school. The industry infiltrated me from a very young age. And as it is for any writer, I think, the challenge was what to do with it, with what was ultimately a very ordinary experience—the regular human stuff of adolescence. Feeling awkward and overmatched within the adult world. Feeling bored. The intermittent apparitions of glamor that appeared—coming back from a movie theater where I’d snuck off to see Risky Business and immediately stepping into an elevator with Rebecca DeMornay—didn’t really change any of that. It was still just . . . teenage life, with its standard distresses.

 

Is Beau Rosenwald, your protagonist, based on anyone in particular? He’s someone who might strike readers as not necessarily “likeable,” even though—for them as for so many characters inside the book—he might also prove weirdly irresistible.

 

I’m not sure that’s a paradox. I think literature is good for this: for generating a strong bond between the reader and personalities he or she might resist in real life. I also think Beau is a special case. I was interested in creating someone who was . . . ample, who might encompass the very best as well as the worst things in human nature. He’s not really based on anybody. Like all the major characters in the book he’s something of a composite: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But he’s also his own man. I found him pretty lovable, as I worked on him. Most of the memorable figures in books aren’t “likeable,” from Achilles and Hamlet on down. Cormac McCarthy fills his books with people who are terrifying, even when they’re not repugnant. (Contemporary television reflects this too, incidentally: Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Sopranos. Whatever turns us on these days, it ain’t conventional charm.) We love our monsters. Beau belongs to a tradition.

 

Speaking of traditions, this seems to be a very masculine book. While there are strong female characters, the dominant voices in the book are male. Were you conscious of that?

 

Somewhat. When I wrote the book, I was aware of telling a story about fathers and sons. A story that ties very deliberately to feelings I have about my own father, even if those feelings are exaggerated or distorted and the character is invented. (Beau is certainly not my father.) I was also conscious that a female perspective gets louder as the story progresses. Beau becomes a dinosaur in a world that’s largely led by women. In part, this was me being historically accurate. The Hollywood of the 1970s was a very masculine place, and the agency business was too. A great agent like Sue Mengers of ICM really stood out. But it was also a chance to draw the veil a little bit, with both generations of men in the book. To represent what men can be like when they’re alone.

 

You’ve referred to Beau as a “singularly American character.” He does seem to be. But I wonder if or how you conceived him as such?

 

I think of Beau as indeed representing something that’s very American, or at least, something that was. He’s what used to be called a “self-made man,” although one never hears that expression anymore. He’s not educated. He’s not particularly talented or gifted, but he’s driven. He’s absolutely relentless in pursuit of what he wants. In a sense, this is the most American idea there is, going back through Willy Loman and Horatio Alger. One succeeds simply through determination and hard work. (I’m not sure anyone believes this nowadays, nor am I sure anyone should.) But Beau’s story in effect is what happens when this sort of person, the embodiment of American individualism, runs up against the advancing tide of global corporate capitalism, which is largely the negation of that idea. It’s a drama that’s played out in different spheres over the last half century or so. The movie business is just one arena in which that’s taken place.

 

You grew up in a Hollywood family. Your father is a well-known talent agent, and your mother was a screenwriter. How did that effect the writing of this book?

 

It gave me a subject, information, and something to have strong, difficult feelings about. I think most novels that address the movies tend to suffer from insiderishness, and what was helpful for me was on the one hand being able to observe the industry up close and, on the other, having mixed feelings. A sense of being an outsider, of not feeling like I fit perfectly with my environment. I think that tension is what powers almost all good writing. I think it’s what made Faulkner, Faulkner. At the same time, I’m close with my parents. I love my dad to bits, and my mom was an amazing, talented woman who wrote several very good scripts, both produced and otherwise. And knowing them both to be very real, very complex human beings—not Hollywood cartoons—was influential also.

 

My work as a studio executive and producer  definitely informs some of the later sections of American Dream Machine. I worked for Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in the mid-‘90s, and later for Jersey Films, which was Danny DeVito and partners. I also worked for Fox 2000, running their office in New York. All of that comes into play, indirectly, in the later half of the book when I give a bit of that experience to my narrator, Nate. It was hugely influential to me, and it taught me a lot: about human nature, about the ways people behave in high-leverage business situations, and about the ways that corporations can exert tremendous pressure upon the individual. All of which are essential themes and considerations in the book.

 

Are there novels that served as models for you?

 

Tons, but they weren’t books about the movie business, or Los Angeles. If anything, I conscientiously avoided most LA writers (except for Chandler). Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Henderson the Rain King were primary tonal influences. There was a kind of Denis Johnson tint that kept creeping in (enough so that I found myself thinking of Nate, my narrator, as one part Johnson’s Fuckhead to one part Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman: Fuckerman) and also, I suppose, certain influences that were and are unavoidable for me. Fitzgerald (Tender Is the Night and The Great Gatsby, but NOT The Last Tycoon, which in fact I’ve never read), Henry James (I’ve read a lot of James, and even at his most irritating I think he’s massively instructive). Certain nonfiction writers were part of it too. For some reason, George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context was important to me while I was writing this (“for some reason,” other than that it’s a great book). Easterly models all.

 

You write about real people in this book, as well as fictitious ones. How did that work?

 

Well, the real ones seem pretty fictitious to me and vice versa! Sooner or later, this distinction really starts to crumble. You’re imagining people, when writing a novel. Some of these people are based directly on real ones (but made up, necessarily, as you’re forced to imagine their actions and behavior), some partake, consciously or otherwise, of aspects of people you’ve known. In this case, the book is populated around the edges with actual Hollywood figures, but I think I’m pretty careful not to overidentify those people, or to lean too heavily—or at all—upon them for effect. You know, if you were a Hollywood agent in the 1970s, you were likely to know movie stars. But the focus here is always on the human, not the pageant. And the main people in this book, the primary figures, are entirely invented. They’re not really based—directly—on anybody in particular.