Alys is a wealthy young dilettante in 1980s Los Angeles when he runs into the mysterious Nesselrode—who leads him into the catacombs of an empty movie house, from which he emerges in a black-and-white fantasia.
This is a Los Angeles on the verge of becoming itself, a place where silent films dominate the landscape, and Alys soon finds his home in the pictures and falls in love with the seductive siren Moira Silver. But as he becomes bewitched by old Hollywood, his previous life grows more and more distant, and Alys may soon wind up trapped.
Alys’s journey down the rabbit hole makes for an enthralling literary adventure from the author of The Balloonist, a National Book Award finalist and “an elegant and fastidious writer” (The New York Times Book Review).
“Life and art become strangely and gloriously confused when Harris’ narrator, Alys, does some time traveling and falls in love with a star of the silent screen . . . Lyrically written.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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About the Author
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I was born in 1950 in a rather odd part of Los Angeles that not very many people know about. If you are like most people, you probably don't regard Los Angeles as a very enchanting city. But I can assure you that St. Albans Place is a very enchanted street indeed. It is a private drive that you enter through a large and ornate iron gate on Wilshire Boulevard, where a guard is always on duty in a small kiosk like a miniature alpine chalet. From there it winds its way — sending off a number of tributary streets with names as spuriously English as its own — through a park of enormous trees and well-kept lawns, to end at Olympic Boulevard at another iron grille that is never opened, although there is a small pedestrian gate at one side that can be unlocked, if you know of its existence and have the right key.
The park was subdivided and most of its houses built in the Twenties, when the city first left the confines of the downtown area and began moving out to the west. The trees were planted at that time. Now they are huge — elms and sycamores for the most part, with gnarled trunks and thick over-arching branches. When you come into it from the traffic of Wilshire Boulevard the place has something of the atmosphere of a bird sanctuary, or a cemetery. The noises of the city are shut out by the trees, and you are conscious only of quiet and isolation, of the pastoral and shady green light that pervades everything, and of the sense of privilege that comes from being very wealthy. The street is broad and curves its way with a kind of negligent magnificence through the sylvan atmosphere of the trees and lawns. The houses on it have only one quality in common — they are all large and expensive. Except for that they are a kind of anthology of all the pretentious and derivative architectures of the time — fake Florentine villas, English country houses, Venetian palazzos, stucco Spanish palaces with tiled roofs, and one house with eaves curled up and stone lions in front of it that vaguely attempts to be Chinese — we always called it the Pagoda. The one I grew up in is a large shingled house with overhanging eaves, a kind of Cape Cod cottage magnified to the dimensions of a mansion. It was built by my grandfather, a Harvard professor who lived most of his life in Cambridge and spent his summers on Martha's Vineyard. He was independently wealthy (the family came from a plumbing manufactory that owned the patent on the flush toilet, in case anyone is curious), and when he was widowed in his fifties he retired early and came to Los Angeles, bringing with him my mother, who was born late in his marriage and still a small child. He acquired a large lot in St. Albans Place, and there he built an exact replica of what he regarded as an ideal habitation, even though it was far too large for a middle-aged professor and a small child — a Cambridge townhouse like those along the winding and shady sanctuary of Brattle Street.
The furnishings of the house, as I remember it from my childhood, were expensive but ill-sorted — some heirlooms, some acquired at a later period. Most of the furniture was that left by my grandfather, whereas the bric-a-brac and small objets d'art had been acquired by my mother and father, or, as I always called them, Astreé and Dirk. (My grandfather was a professor of French literature, and it pleased him, out of a kind of antiquated perversity, to name his only child for a character in a seventeenth century pastoral.) There was a pair of Sisleys, said to be authentic, on the wall by the mantelpiece, and a photograph of my mother by Man Ray. In the dining room there was an extraordinary piece of furniture: a Louis Quinze sideboard with gilded legs and a large ornate mirror covered with gray splotches, which in my childhood I endowed with all the mystery and significance of a map of an unknown land. I identified continents in it, rivers, and even cities, which I inhabited in the secret reveries of my imagination. The house was full of a clutter of other odd things: a camel saddle, a bronze Pompeiian figurine with a phenomenal erection (when I was small I thought it was only the way he carried his sword), an arquebus which worked and could be fired on the Fourth of July, and a toilet in the downstairs bathroom so old that it might have been the original of the family patent, with a brass chain hanging from the tank on the ceiling and a pattern of stains, in the bowl, almost as complex as those on the tarnished mirror. This we called the Infernal Machine. It had a sound all to itself: a wheeze, a gurgle, a chuckle or two, and then, after a pause, a great rush of water that went on for a long time and left all the pipes in the house humming. Finally it shut itself off with a snap, the gasp of a person suddenly throttled with an iron hand.
My grandfather died when I was still very young, so that I hardly remember him and I think of the house mainly as a place where Astreé and Dirk and I lived together. We must have seemed an odd family to others, although, since we lived almost entirely to ourselves, our way of life seemed to us perfectly natural. Both Astreé and Dirk were exceptionally good-looking and seemed eternally young. They were always blithe and happy and gave the impression somehow that they were living in a romantic comedy rather than a life in the real world. Sometimes they sang to each other, trading lines like characters in a Noel Coward musical as they moved through the house from room to room. "Many's the time that we feasted ..." "And many's the time that we fasted ..." "Oh well, it was swell while it lasted ..." "We did have fun ..." "And no harm done ..." And then, with a look of mock sentiment and a glance through the doorway between them, they would join together in two-part harmony for "Thanks ... for the memory ..." Astreé had difficulty taking things seriously, including her own unique and striking boyish beauty, the wealth she had inherited so effortlessly, and even the house itself. Sometimes, when the three of us came back at night from the noise and traffic of the city and stopped the car in the drive, in the silence and the dank, slightly foreboding shade of the old trees, she would intone in a fakey theatrical voice:
"A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon lover!"
They lived their lives almost entirely together and for each other, so in some ways they hardly paid attention to me. They were always going on motor trips, burning the toast, quarreling and making up, trying to outspend each other for clothes, and having disagreements which turned into torrid clinches and then ended in the bedroom. When they went away on trips, often for a week or more, they left me with a sitter, a disagreeable middle-aged woman named Mrs. Bent whom I detested. Mrs. Bent, however, was engaged more to satisfy the legal requirements about child care than out of concern for my own security or welfare. If it hadn't been for the law, they would probably have gone off and left me alone in the house when I was a boy of ten. It wasn't that they were lacking in affection for me or that they were bad parents. It was simply that they had no experience of children and didn't understand them very well. They had no friends who had children, and neither of them had had brothers or sisters. So they hardly knew how to regard me, and they ended by regarding me simply as a person like themselves. It was true that I was physically smaller than other people, so that my chin came only to the edge of the table and my clothes had to be bought in the boys' department at Bullock's, but they saw this as no reason not to treat me exactly as an adult — a friend perhaps of whom they were very fond, and yet didn't mind leaving for a week or two when they went away on a trip. They were aware, of course, that this behavior was unconventional, but rather than address themselves seriously to the question of what childhood was or how a child ought to be brought up they preferred to regard the situation as a joke. "I was certainly never ten years old," said Dirk, regarding me gravely over the dining-room table, "and neither was anybody on my side of the family."
Still I had an intimate, if intermittent, relationship with the two of them. Dirk called me "old fellow" even when I was seven, and had long conversations with me in which he would explain to me, for example, that the reason Astreé was out of sorts today was that she was having her period. Women were difficult at such times, he advised, and it was best to have nothing to do with them. Having married into the family money, he had no need to work and never did so, even though he had a university degree in architecture. He had a single passion, antique cars. He bought and sold at least two dozen of them during my childhood, spending great time and effort searching for rare parts to restore them before, reluctantly, selling them to make room for others. Sometimes there were four or five of them in the enormous garage behind the house. The ones I remember most clearly, from the time of my late adolescence, were three: a rare Invicta three-liter touring car, a 1929 Duesenberg Model J, and a dual-cowl Hudson phaeton of the same period with coach work by Biddle and Smart. The actual restoration work, of course, was done by professionals. But Dirk was assiduous in his attention to details and meticulous in his taste, sometimes making trips East in search of a rare hood ornament or an authentic magneto — once even to England for a pair of headlamps for the Invicta, the ones on his own car being too rusted to be re-plated. The Invicta was his favorite: a lean and elegant machine from the period of the mid-Twenties, with long sweeping fenders, a riveted hood with a sharp chine, nickel-plated headlamps mounted on a crossbar, and a thermometer emerging from the nickel-plated radiator cap. It was painted a beautiful rich deep persimmon color. I remember once watching him polish it with a can of Simoniz wax, while he explained to me the aesthetics of automobiles and other things. "It's when you are polishing a car that you are most aware of the beauty of the design," he told me. "It's because your hand goes over and follows all the curves, in addition to your eye. You feel the body kinetically. The curves, you see, of the fenders, and the place where the hood joins the body." He demonstrated as he worked the rag into the hollow curve between the fenders and the hood. "And it's the same," he went on, "when you're making love to a woman. It's when your hand follows the curves of the body that you become fully aware of its beauty." Here he put the lid back on the Simoniz, got out some metal polish, and began polishing the large round headlamps at the front of the car, glancing sideways at me with a little smile.
He was a slender, handsome, courteous, joking, good-natured man who charmed everybody who came into contact with him. When he took off his clothes he had the body of a twenty-year-old. We often took baths together, in an enormous enameled tub that stood on four clawed legs in the bathroom upstairs. "Always wash your pecker carefully, old fellow," he advised, while doing so to his own. "That way, you form the habit and you won't pick up something nasty from some tart later." I was curious that he had no foreskin. "It's because I'm Jewish, old fellow," he told me. At that time I had no very clear notion what a Jew was, and he didn't explain any further. He never mentioned the subject again.
Astreé too was strikingly beautiful, in a style more of the Twenties than of the mid-Fifties when I first became aware of her as a person. She was slim, with a not very pronounced figure, and she emphasized this boyishness by wearing straight clothes with simple short skirts. She had a perfect ivory complexion, a heart-shaped face, and short hair that she tossed carelessly back from her head; she looked something like Mary Pickford. She had only one passion, and that was herself — her own body and her beauty. Yet it could hardly be said that she was vain; taking care of her beauty was simply what she did, as Dirk lovingly took care of his old cars. She was perfectly objective about herself and would often ask others' opinions about her body — whether the faint rings under her eyes were enough yet to justify cosmetic surgery, or whether she ought to wear the tight turtleneck jerseys that were coming into fashion considering her rather small breasts. ("Yes," was Dirk's opinion. "It's the gamine look. My own taste, darling, doesn't incline to the bovine, so be happy about it.") She spent several hours of each day in her dressing room, before a table fitted with a mirror framed in light bulbs, like that of an actress. Yet she was careless of her makeup and clothes, once they were on, and would enthusiastically engage in pillow-fights, wrestle in the straw with Dirk on our visits to the country, or impulsively take off her clothes and throw them into the sand when the three of us, hand-in-hand, strode naked into the Malibu surf at midnight.
It was Astrée who, for reasons best known to herself, decided to name me Alys. Perhaps because she had really wanted a girl, or perhaps because she did not distinguish the two sexes very clearly in her own mind — there was some evidence for this. I was subject to a certain amount of satire on account of this, especially when I was away at school, but it never particularly bothered me. I felt that I too was special, like Astreé and Dirk, and it seemed natural that I should have a special name. After all what other boy had a mother like Astreé? To me she behaved exactly as she did to the rest of her friends; she was affectionate without sentiment, she confided every intimate thought that came to her without hesitating, she often asked my advice on things, and when I came home at the end of the day she embraced me as she did her other friends, male and female, as was the custom in their set — in the French manner, a quick hug and a touch of the lips on both cheeks. I still remember, from the time I was fifteen or so, the soft bittersweet sensation of her small breasts pressing against my own thin and boyish chest. It fixed my notions for a long time, permanently, of what women were like. I was not interested in ordinary girls. There was nothing wrong with me physically; all my male reflexes worked perfectly. It was just that, living with Astreé and Dirk, I had no need of anyone else.
I have said that she was affectionate toward me, and she was, but no more than she was to her other friends; and she didn't care to have me around all the time any more than she wanted the house always full of her friends. I was sent to private day schools, and later for a brief period they sent me away to an exclusive prep school in La Jolla, perhaps as much to get me out of the house as to provide me with the excellent education they could easily afford. It was an excellent school, in a kind of English manor house set in well-kept landscaping at the edge of the sea, and the pseudo-Etonian curriculum, with its classical languages and its emphasis on mens sana in corpore sano (we played soccer and even cricket) was also excellent. But I was unhappy there, or so I told Astreé and Dirk; in actual fact I was only bored. I didn't mingle much with the other pupils, most of them the children of wealthy lawyers and physicians. I had no interest in their giggling and goosing, their flatulence jokes, their snobbish gangs and hierarchies. It wasn't that I felt superior to them; it was just that I had nothing in particular to say to them. I couldn't succeed in thinking of myself as someone like them, that is to say as a child, because Astreé and Dirk had never treated me like a child.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Screenplay"
Copyright © 2013 The Estate of Donald Heiney.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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What People are Saying About This
"Life and art become strangely and gloriously confused when Harris's narrator, Alys, does some time traveling and falls in love with a star of the silent screen...This novel hasn't lost any of its luster since its original publication…it's both ingeniously plotted and lyrically written." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood." —Shelf Awareness (starred review)