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The Boston Phoenix Tinsel Tales

John Kaye's characters write their own stories.

By Charles Taylor

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

STARS SCREAMING, By John Kaye. Atlantic Monthly Press, 325 pages, $25.

About 50 pages into Stars Screaming, the debut novel from screenwriter John Kaye, it's Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles during the summer of 1949. Nathan Burk and his son Ray have stopped into a Vine Street deli. Over lunch, Nathan tells Ray how years before, Nate's cousin Aaron, now a boozer who runs the used-book shop Nathan owns, saved his life. An anti-Semitic bully named Moriarty had been intent on pushing Nathan off a subway platform when Aaron intervened with a baseball bat. "Try to hit me again, sheeny," Moriarty taunts. And Aaron is ready to, but Moriarty laughs, says, "Screw you, Jew," and jumps in front of an oncoming train. "You mean he committed suicide?", Ray asks his father.

"Yes," Nathan tells him. "And that, my son, is the end of the story." But it's not. In Stars Screaming, there's no such thing as the end of the story because the stories never stop coming, and each one we hear connects with three or four others. The Los Angeles of the novel -- of the '40s and '50s, when Ray Burk grows up hanging around his father's newsstand, and of the '60s and '70s, where he's working as a screenwriter in the "new" Hollywood -- is a place where people have come to write a different story for themselves. In the small towns and burgs they leave behind, they feel their stories are already written. They go to LA to do revisions on that predetermined script. Often, though, the stories they've left behind are better than the ones they've realized for themselves since.

So the stories they tell are about ghosts, children left behind or young beauty-contest winners lured West with the promise of stardom. Sometimes the ghosts they talk of are themselves, back when they had looks, work, money. It's ironic in a novel saturated by movies that almost no one watches a movie. The characters of Stars Screaming have no need for the black-and-white figures on the late show, people, in the words of the critic Paul Coates, condemned to their own future ghostliness. Those faces, the half-familiar as well as the legendary, turn up on the barstool next to you, or on the street at night walking their dog. The trip wires of memory come out of jukeboxes and radios, from someone glimpsed on the street, or in half-heard conversations. Everyone is ready to unload his or her tale, and when there's no one to talk to, there's always the late-night DJ soliciting stories, making connections out of the disconnections of his listeners.

Stars Screaming teems with the chance encounters that characterized the screenplays Kaye wrote in the '70s, among them American Hot Wax and the lovely little road movie Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. (No one who's ever seen American Hot Wax is likely to forget Moosie Drier as the young president of the Buddy Holly Fan Club telling Alan Freed what Buddy meant to him). These characters may be specters, but Kaye never treats them that way. He tells their stories so well, slipping into the voices of his storytellers so easily, with just the right degree of humor and pity and irony, that he fills you with a sort of greedy compassion to hear more, to buy the next round and ask, "Then, what happened?"

Ray, trying to give voice to his own past in the screenplays he writes, collects these stories in bars and rooming houses from out-of-work actors and drinkers and drifters. At home, he's confronting another kind of ghost, in his marriage to his college sweetheart, Sandra, who retreats into booze and her own madness, which she may or may not have passed on to their six-year-old son, Louie. Kaye's domestic scenes unnerve you and tear you up at the same time. They're not as much about a dying marriage as they are about a marriage kept alive by the persistent, painful ache of love.

Stars Screaming is the damnedest novel to characterize because everything about it is a sort of contradiction: funny in ways that break your heart; meticulously imagined in a way that makes it infinitely mysterious; dark and unexpectedly violent in ways that only sharpen its humanity; and autobiographical in a way that keeps deflecting attention to others. It's a book deeply in love with LA's capacity to yield up stories, like the one John Kaye tells me over the phone from his office near Hollywood and Vine. Kaye is browsing in a bookstore when a young man walks in. "He looked like a guy that could have wandered off a bus in Iowa, he was kind of dressed wrong, a Joe Buck kind of character," Kaye says. Picking up the Hollywood Creative Directory and talking to no one more than himself, the guy announces that he needs only to connect with the right name in the book to be discovered. Kaye says he left the store amazed at the guy's misplaced and unshakable confidence. On the other hand, he concludes, "He might be James Dean."

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