by Steve Erickson
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Vikar Jerome, the protagonist of Steve Erickson's new novel Zeroville, is a former divinity student who has chucked his religious studies in order to take a Greyhound bus to Hollywood, having decided "if righteousness means no movies, he would rather be damned." A freak in a city of freaks, he has this misfortune to arrive in Los Angeles in the immediate aftermath of the Tate-LaBianca murders and is taken into custody by the police because, with his shaved head festooned with a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, he appears even more dangerous than the legion of longhairs populating the Hollywood Hills at the time.
Such is the luck of our hero, an idiot savant in matters of film (one character goes so far as to call him cinï¿½autistic) who wanders through the history of cinema from the late 1960s to the 1980s; an avatar, equal parts Chauncey Gardiner and Zelig if concocted by Thomas Pynchon.
While Vikar (his name a play on Elizabeth Taylor's character in A Place in the Sun, Angela Vickers) does have the Zelig fortune of being at the right place at the right time, he is endlessly vexed by the fact that he is in Hollywood surrounded by people who are completely ignorant of its history. It is as if the upstart directors who were rolling out of USC film school at that time were not merely starting a new chapter of cinematic history, but also trying their best to obliterate Hollywood's golden age. At the same time, however, he becomes a prizewinning film editor who inadvertently convinces those around him that he is a genius by merely parroting other people's opinions of cinema. Some of the most trenchant insight into the medium Vikar receives is from a burglar that he has tied to a chair in his apartment. While waiting for the police to arrive, they sit and watch Now, Voyager and My Darling Clementine, while the burglar tells Vikar that the former picture was "the apotheosis of the forties studio system's so-called 'Women's picture'" and the latter is "practically noir Western."
In Zeroville Steve Erickson weaves a gripping, yet free-floating and dizzyingly surreal narrative that is frequently punctuated with Hollywood greats named and unnamed, real and imagined. Half of the fun is trying to connect the less obvious incidents and characters with their real-life analogues. Erickson not only captures the inverted logic of the seventies version of the studio system (where the moguls of the golden age began to die out and were replaced with heads of multinational corporations with zero film experience), but he's created a film yearbook by listing many of the films Vikar goes to see throughout the novel. These lists are guaranteed to invoke memories, and, if, while reading this book, you don't add a few of them to your Netflix queue, then you've got no right to call yourself a cineaste of any sort.
This is not to overlook Vikar's quest. He's a holy fool trying to figure out why God seems to think that humanity will find salvation through killing its children, a theme introduced by his misguided and rabidly religious father. As cinema becomes his new religion, Vikar finds the answer in films such as The Godfather Part II and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Through Vikar's uninformed absorption of movies, the reader accompanies him through a decade of cinema and a lifetime of redemption. The result is a novel that is pleasing for the general reader, but for film junkies will be literary quicksand.
In fact, now that I've read the novel, I'd have to say that if righteousness means cinema without Zeroville, I'd rather be damned. Yes, it is that good and it can change the way you look at moving pictures.