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The New York Times: "it’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this funny, disturbing, daring and demanding novel-Erickson’s best. The set pieces in “Zeroville” are particularly breathtaking."

Date: Dec 2 2007

The hero of Steve Erickson’s new novel is obsessed with movies.

By Liesl Schillinger

AHH, the lure of the madman-the harrowed, sinewy figure with glowing eyes who approaches out of the shadows, burning to communicate is communicable truth.  Think of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” with his wild stare and lurking ax:  “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”  When such a person nears, do you step back?  Do you linger, frozen in terror, compelled by his mesmeric gaze?  Or do you, like Vikar, the “cineautistic” protagonist of Steve Erickson latest novel, “Zeroville,” regard him quizzically, without fear, thinking only, “I don’t understand comedies”?

Erickson, the film critic for Los Angeles magazine, writes surreal, highly visual novels that he splices together as if they were art films.  Two of his earlier books, “The Sea Came at Midnight” and “Our Estactic Days,” feature the same symbolic heroine, Kristen, a young woman who bears a child named Kierkegaard (Kirk for short) to an “apocalyptologist” in Los Angles, only to have the child disappear as the city is inundated by magical portents-a lake fills the valley, owls swirl overhead and invisible “melody snakes” infest the skies.

Yes, Erickson likes to mess with his readers’ heads.  But that’s nothing compared with what he’s done to the head of Ike Jerome (known as Vikar to his friends because of his divinity-school background and mystic mien), the troubled, visionary hero of the fascinating piece of phantasmagoric Hollywood homage that is “Zeroville.”  Vikar’s shaved head is covered with a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, “the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies,” their lips nearly touching in a close-up from “A Place in the Sun.” Strangers who meet Vikar recoil from the skin cartoon that stains his cranium, but unless you offend the flesh and blood (or celluloid) people Vikar loves, you’re safe.  In the words of the Clash, one of the punk bands he listens to, “Everybody say, ‘He sure look funny.’/Ah but that’s Montgomery Clift, honey!”

The story takes place between 1969 and the early ‘80’s, following Vikar from Los Angeles to Madrid to New York to Cannes, even to Oslo, and back.  But as one of the characters, a director called Viking Man, observes, “It’s all Hollywood, everywhere is Hollywood, the only place on the planet that’s not Hollywood anymore is Hollywood,”  While narrating Vikar’s journey in a fairly linear chronology, interrupted by flashbacks, Erickson weaves in fleeting references to actual actors, directors and rock bands.  He allows Vikar to spy on Ali McGraw flubbing her lines as she shoots” Love Story”; to party in a beach house with the young Robert DeNiro in his pre-“Taxi Driver” days: and to happen upon CBGB’s at the dawn of its punk heyday.

Nearly a decade ago, the longtime executive editor of Premiere magazine, Peter Biskind, recapped the same era in his nonfiction book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”  “Zeroville,” with its dizzying, in-the-know, name-and-place dropping (and its incessant allusions to famous movies and their stars, both cryptic and explicit) is a kind of novelistic refutation of Biskind’s book-without an index.  Its very title is a cinematic inside joke, drawn from the New Wave Godard film “Alphaville.”  In that movie, the private eye cries,  “This isn’t Alphaville, this is Zeroville!”  Vikar with visions of “Blade Runner” zipping through his head, thinks Hollywood is Zeroville because “there’s no sunlight in this Los Angeles; every day is reset at zero.”  For him, that isn’t necessarily an indictment, since “the movie is in all times, and all times are in the movie.”

Both Biskind’s and Erickson’s books begin with the Manson murders and an earthquake.  Vikar arrives in Los Angeles in August 1969 on a bus from Philadelphia, determined to bring his visual sensibility to the film business and haunted by family memories.  (His Bible-spouting father crept into his bedroom to rage about sin, on one occasion while brandishing a long knife.)  Vikar quickly makes an impression on his fellow Angelenos: his tattoo is an unforgettable calling card.  When a hippie at a sandwich shop mistakes the tableau on his head for a scene from “Rebel Without a Cause” and says, approvingly, “Dig it, man.  My favorite movie,”  Vikar smashes him with his tray, incensed that anyone would mistake Liz for Natalie, Monty for James Dean.

A couple of days later, Vikar is the one brought to ground when a dozen cops charge him as he emerges from the Harry Houdini house in Laurel Canyon, a ruin amid burning caves in the Los Angeles hills.  By ill luck, Vikar has taken his hillside stroll on the morning after the Manson family slaughters, and his body art makes him look like Public Enemy No. 1.  Still, Paramount, and Viking Man reassures his friends that although Vikar is “nuts about the movies,” he’s not a violent cult member.  Even freaky, groovy actors aren’t entirely convinced, particularly Soledad Palladin (rumored to be the daughter of Luis Bunuel) whom Vikar reveres.  “He may not be one of the Manson family,” she admits.  “But he’s not harmless.”

Beyond establishing these (somewhat) grounding details, it’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this funny, disturbing, daring and demanding novel-Erickson’s best.  The set pieces in “Zeroville” are particularly breathtaking.  It’s hard to read the scene in which Vikar ties up a burglar who’s broken into his apartment, then sits with him for hours arguing about the ‘40’s studio system and dissecting Bette Davis’s performance in “Now, Voyager” without thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”  When Viking Man summons a reluctant Vikar to Madrid to edit a film on Generalisssimo Francisco Franco, it’s easy to think of Roberto Bolaño’s mad, fertile Barcelona campsite scenes in “The Savage Detectives.”

Terse, fanciful, dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish, this remarkable novel will test you and tease you and leave you desperate to line up at Film Forum (or hunt down Erickson’s top 150 on DVD) so you can submit yourself to the celluloid bonds that hold Vikar and his creator such willing captives.

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