Selling Out by Dan Wakefield

The Tennessean, August 18, 1985, page 10-F.

SELLING OUT. By Dan Wakefield. Little, Brown. $16.95.

‘Hollywood Novel’ As Good as Dead
Even a Talented Dan Wakefield Fails To Bring Genre New Life

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

In 1948 Evelyn Waugh committed murder.

In that year he published The Loved One and so killed the Hollywood novel.

It has been dead ever since.

This is not to say that Hollywood novels haven’t been written since—and by the dozens. But they are, in varying degrees of cleverness, mere simulacra, ruddy corpses that walk and talk but lack the vital essence: anything new to say.

Like the rest of its cohorts, Dan Wakefield’s Selling Out is no Lazarus, despite its virtues. It is an amusing novel, decently written and reasonably truthful.

The author’s essential generosity and good spirit would make any novel a comfortable and appealing diversion. Yet for all its virtues, Selling Out is hollow at the core.

This is an ironic criticism to level at Wakefield, for it is precisely the emptiness of the Hollywood mentality that he is attacking in his novel.

He knows his target well: He created and wrote the short-lived but much-praised television series “James at 15.” He resigned from the series in 1978 after NBC executives would not allow James to use the word “responsibility” as a synonym for birth control.

No one can fault Wakefield for taking his revenge in Selling Out.

The protagonist of the story is Perry Moss, a college professor and serious writer of sophisticated short stories who is lured to Hollywood to write a “quality” television series—and that’s all the plot you need to know.

The rest is not silence, alas, but 300 pages elaborating the obvious.

Wakefield conks his head against this hard fact at the very start of the novel, but somehow ignores the consequent lump.

Perry’s colleagues, he writes, “harrumphed and glowered and trotted out the tired old clichés about what Hollywood did to people (as if the place itself were some malevolent force, a form of infectious disease), capped by the old chestnut about poor Scott Fitzgerald meeting his early demise because of ‘Hollywood.’”

The problem is both Perry and his colleagues are right. These objections to Hollywood are clichés, but, as Perry discovers, they are also true.

The novel, as a genre, is obliged to tell the truth, but that alone is not enough. It must also, as its name promises, tell us something new. Over this hurdle Selling Out fatally stumbles.

If Wakefield’s novel had a less formidable ancestry, it might seem more substantial. But neither writer nor reader can responsibly ignore The Loved One and its equally brilliant predecessor, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

Between them, these two masterpieces exhausted the possibilities of the Hollywood novel.

West and Waugh exploded the myth of Hollywood that made their novels necessary.

Wakefield might well agree in the abstract, but in this novel he treats his hero, his readers and, I think, his former self, as if they were like those midwestern tourists one sees padding up and down Hollywood Boulevard in bermuda shorts, looking for another Lana Turner in Schwab’s Drugstore, but finding only the mannequins in Frederick’s of Hollywood.

We know better, and so do those tourists. There are often good reasons for indulging in unfulfilling experiences (why else would we watch TV?), but we generally know what we’re missing

One could do worse than be a reader of Selling Out. But while it is rather healthier for one’s mind than watching television, it isn’t much more satisfying.

Many better novels, some of them by Dan Wakefield, are waiting to be read. Why not try one of them instead?

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.