‘City of Blows’ Review
The history of actors writing novels is a rich and strange one. More have done this than you might think (if we throw in memoirs and children’s books, the number of actor-authors increases exponentially). Robert Shaw, for example, wrote several acclaimed novels in his time, including The Man in the Glass Booth, which was then adapted by Shaw into a play and a film. Gene Hackman co-wrote, with Daniel Lenihan, several historical novels; since retiring from acting, he’s written two more solo. Carrie Fisher wrote eight books, four of them novels, over the span of 29 years. Tom Hanks has his first novel coming out this year, following a rather hefty collection of short stories in 2017.
Every so often, this curious subgenre of literature will throw out an idiosyncratic curveball, such as when Michael Imperioli’s novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes, about a young New Yorker’s friendship with Lou Reed, was released. Michael Imperioli wrote a novel? Yes, he did! Or, most recently, the release of director/character actor/playwright Tim Blake Nelson’s first novel, City of Blows.
I’m not sure when I first encountered character actor Tim Blake Nelson, but I’d probably seen him as the spiritually optimistic lunkhead Delmar in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? before doubling back and discovering he was also an independent filmmaker himself. His directorial debut—which he adapted from a play he wrote—was Eye of God (1997). The film is a sort of thriller, but one that focuses on the humanity of both the victims and the perpetrators of said violence (without ever excusing the latter, or begging the audience to pity them). Eye of God, with its wonderful performances from the likes of Margo Martindale, Hal Holbrook, Martha Plimpton, and others, and the raw depression inherent in its violence, really struck a chord with me, as did The Grey Zone (2001), his surprisingly unflinching Holocaust drama, drawn from the thoughts and experiences, if not actually based on the work of, Primo Levi (in Levi’s 1986 collection The Drowned and the Saved, the second essay is titled “The Gray Zone”). I can’t say as much for O (2001 again), Nelson’s impossible-to-Google modernized take on Othello, but I’m glad I finally saw that one because it turns out that a fictionalized version of it is an important element of City of Blows.
And what a curious book City of Blows is. Ostensibly about the difficulty of getting a controversial film project off the ground, the novel begins by introducing the major players when they are still children. There’s Jacob Rosenthal, a young boy in Chicago with a demanding, apparently unloving father. Jacob will learn, however, that his dad is very loving, but the World War II vet is a man scraped raw. There’s also David Levitt, whose interest in theater and acting is slow to develop but comes to dominate, in a positive way, his life. Through this calling, David makes friends, finds love, and begins a life in independent filmmaking. Finally, we meet Brad Shlansky, whose family owns a chain of convenience stores and check-cashing businesses in Long Island. As he grows up, his interests begin to mirror David Levitt’s, and the two will eventually meet in Hollywood. But Brad’s path is darker, and by the end of the chapter introducing him, both of Brad’s beloved parents will be dead—one from natural causes, one from suicide brought on by grief—and his life will be in turmoil. It turns out Brad’s father wasn’t paying anywhere near the taxes he owed. He had a whole process in place to do this, which came to light after his death. One of the attorneys hired to untangle the mess and to calculate the debt Brad and his sisters owe, says, with nothing but admiration, “Your dad really put the ‘fuck you’ in tax evasion.”
These lives—as well as the life of Paul Aiello, a childhood friend of Brad’s who becomes a talent agent—converge in Los Angeles. At first, it seems that the reader should regard David as the novel’s main character, and in a way he is. For one thing, his career mirrors that of Tim Blake Nelson: Levitt is Jewish and from Appalachia, Nelson is Jewish and from Oklahoma (not exactly the same, I’ll grant you); early in their directing careers, both Levitt and Nelson made a Holocaust drama (Levitt’s is called Capos); and both of their careers get a boost, though in many ways an unhappy one, with a modernized film version of a seventeenth-century play. Levitt’s film, Revenge, is temporarily shelved by the distributors (barely disguised versions of the Weinstein brothers) after a school shooting, since the movie is set in a high school and ends in a flurry of violence. So, too, was the case with Nelson’s O, the release of which was delayed, by the actual Weinsteins, after Columbine. But in the true story and the City of Blows version, both films were released and became modest successes, given their budgets. The most important thing is that Nelson’s fictional account has now introduced Charlie Gold, the novel’s Harvey Weinstein, which takes City of Blows in its intended direction: an overview of the anti-art moral cesspit that is modern Hollywood.
For all its halfhearted gesturing toward the main plot—the attempt by David Levitt, under the abrasive but wise tutelage of producer Jacob Rosenthal, to make Coal, the sure-to-be controversial film version of a controversial, award-winning novel about race in America—that’s just the novel’s spine to which Nelson attaches all sorts of things. Mostly flashbacks, of which there are many, many lengthy ones. I don’t object to this on principle or anything, but at times Nelson’s transition from the present to the past is less than smooth, and I sometimes found myself wondering where I was, exactly, and would have to flip back in the book to get my bearings. The unduly complicated back and forth through time leads to a climax that rather abruptly brings a number of subplots—including some that were fairly rich in drama, such as a rape allegation against Aiello and the effect this will have on his life—to complete dead ends. But this, too, could be part of Nelson’s whole idea: thinking of all the challenging movies that never get made, or are changed by the Charlie Golds of the world, so that instead of something memorable and worthy of impassioned discussion, we instead get movies that offer easy closure, something that doesn’t exist in life.
For all its faults, I do think City of Blows is a successful novel. Nelson can write (though he does overuse certain words, such as “matriculate”), and his perspective on the movie business is unique. City of Blows is far from the first Hollywood novel to be cynical about the whole enterprise (are there any Hollywood novels that aren’t?), but his approach is new, at least to me. Actors barely factor into the novel; even Levitt’s acting career barely comes up. It’s all agents and producers and managers, plus one struggling filmmaker. City of Blows isn’t about succeeding in Hollywood by any means necessary, which is usually how these things are structured. Instead, it’s about how easy it is to fail in Hollywood, and how you can’t stop the bus without brakes from careering downhill.
I also like how Jacob Rosenthal, who’s in City of Blows far less than the other people to whom we were introduced in the novel’s first section, turns out to be one of the more admirable characters. Guys like Rosenthal, aging Hollywood producers, tend to be the villains in these sorts of stories, but here he’s one of the only people with his head screwed on straight and his soul intact. He can be something of a prick, but even that’s for the greater good of movies.
He’s certainly doing better than Brad Shlansky, whose earlier Hollywood success was fleeting, and who now wants to exert whatever control he can on whomever he can (in this case, trying to thwart Levitt’s impassioned intent to make Coal) just so he can drag somebody down with him. Still, Shlansky is easily Nelson’s most fascinating creation. A man whose life has been ruined twice, once as a teenager following the death of his parents and again as his money slowly drains away when one business relationship after another quietly implodes in typical Hollywood fashion. It’s the second ruination that breaks him, and he becomes someone others in the business have to find a way to tolerate, or avoid, rather than work with.
Another interesting thing about City of Blows is Nelson’s approach to politics. He doesn’t force any of this: The (fictional) novel Coal, by deceased black author Rex Patterson, is controversial precisely because, despite its success, it managed to infuriate both white and black readers. Nelson’s point is, essentially, that whatever important issue on which you hold a deeply serious and righteous opinion is and always will be far more complicated than any of us side-pickers are willing to admit. At one point, late in the novel, Paul Aiello recounts a 2016 election party, and how horrified and confused the Hollywood elites around him were:
“. . . We sit in staff meetings down the hall, and I look around at all of you drooling over how to put your clients in these movies and take your commissions and go to the premieres. . . . And then within the hour you’re ridiculing the movie and talking about the spiritual downfall of our industry when you’re gladly making money hand over fist. You think people out there don’t see that? . . . Every one of you out here in your echo chamber hating the rest of America for voting for Trump when your fucking dripping hypocritical superiority is what made them all say a big fuck-you by electing a reality TV star you all hate. . . I wanted to stand up at that party and say, ‘You know what? It serves you all fucking right. You deserve every bit of your pain.’”
I hate Trump and didn’t vote for him, yet I find little to disagree with in this rant (which goes on for almost a full page). It is perhaps gilding the “everything is more complicated than you think” lily by putting these words in the mouth of a literal rapist. Or perhaps this, like so many moments in City of Blows, is there merely to underline the rampant, self-righteous, delusional hypocrisy of those who work on the business side of motion pictures. Who cares if Paul, at his core a coward, thought these things while he was at a party? It’s not like he said any of that to the people he says he hates.
That would have been bad business.