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Philadelphia Inquirer: "Steve Erickson's is a feral and entertaining ride with cultural references, quirky koans, and a few surreal pit stops."

Date: Nov 18 2007

Just when you thought that the Hollywood novel had fizzled out with all the eclat of an inebriated Mickey Rourke driving through Miami on a Vespa, another writer has come along with high-octane fuel for the form.

Set mostly in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1982, the years mirroring Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Steve Erickson's is a feral and entertaining ride with cultural references, quirky koans, and a few surreal pit stops. Vikar is a cinematic savant, fresh off the bus from Philly with a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift buzzed into his bald pate. That Erickson opts to give his protagonist a shaven head in lieu of the long hair omnipresent among hippies is one of the book's many clever inversions. The book unfolds in snippet-sized chapters, with the chapter tally reversing midway through, initiating an imposing countdown from the 227 mark.

Vikar is a former architecture student who holds onto a model church that resembles a movie theater and may have something to do with a mysterious institution in Oslo. Vikar also has strange dreams involving archaic Hebrew and remains technically virginal through most of the book, although this does not stop him from "cheating" on Elizabeth Taylor. Erickson's approach, with Candide possibly in mind, is to simply throw Vikar into tangential run-ins and let the madness follow.

Film geeks will have fun playing Spot the Cinematic Reference. One of the book's entertaining conceits is the way it eschews the Hollywood practice of name-dropping and presents characteristics without explicit identification. We learn of "a very smart editor" who "did the sound edit on Coppola's last two pictures," and wonder if Walter Murch will show up. A young woman named Julia, who may never eat lunch in this town again, "doesn't want to be the Garbo or John Ford but the next Jack Warner or Harry Cohn and may just be evil enough to pull it off."

Erickson has a great ear for dialogue, whether it's lengthy dissection of the editing behind A Place in the Sun or a staccato burst of sentences involving clarification of a flight that may not have lasted 13 hours. The book's most successful supporting character is Viking Man, a bearded, cigar-chomping surfer "writing a movie for John Huston" who bears more than a passing resemblance to the talented blowhard John Milius. Anyone who has ever listened to Milius ramble at length on a DVD commentary will pick up his cadences: "But I can't be the next Howard Hawks because I could never make a musical or a screwball comedy - I know my limits, vicar, you got to give me that. So I have to settle for being the next [John] Ford. . . ."

Erickson also has fun with the way dialogue is often recycled from Hollywood talk, eventually losing its original context. There's an anecdote about John Cassavetes seeing a movie he hated eight times before he liked it, concluding with the summation "God, I love this movie." But this is not the last time we hear this line. As Vikar attracts agents and publicists, he is soon clutching onto this sentence in a desperate effort to communicate.

Zeroville is more of a straightforward satire than Erickson's previous books, and it's somewhat disappointing to see Erickson toning down some of the experimentation he displayed so well in Our Ecstatic Days. There are also a few missed opportunities to observe the crazed events from Vikar's perspective. Vikar mistakes a high-priced call girl for "a nice woman who knew a lot about cinema," and this description hints at a West Coast version of Being There. (It can't be an accident that an old man named Chauncey shows up at a movie theater.)

When the action shifts later in the book to New York, involving the famed club CBGB and the Lower East Side punk scene, there's the promise of a larger cultural canvas. But Erickson stops short, opting for an anticlimactic surrogate-father scenario. Still, with a wink to the reader, Erickson has one character declare, "What you thought you knew all along turns out to be something else."

And, despite these quibbles, one does not have to read Zeroville eight times to declare, "God, I love this book."

Reviewed by Edward Champion, a Brooklyn writer who hosts the literary blog Return of the Reluctant (http://www.edrants.com).