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American Dream Machine

Matthew Specktor’s new novel, American Dream Machine, is set in LA and spans the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. My mind has pop-ups when I hear about a book that takes place in LA—I think Chandler, Fante and Mosley, not to mention all those black-and-white noir films. Never having visited, I prefer to keep my perhaps faux-romantic ideas of this location rather than be disturbed by the actual reality of Los Angeles. So, I wondered, what will Specktor’s book add to my at-a-distance relationship to this fabled city?

Matthew Specktor’s new novel, American Dream Machine, is set in LA and spans the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. My mind has pop-ups when I hear about a book that takes place in LA—I think Chandler, Fante and Mosley, not to mention all those black-and-white noir films. Never having visited, I prefer to keep my perhaps faux-romantic ideas of this location rather than be disturbed by the actual reality of Los Angeles. So, I wondered, what will Specktor’s book add to my at-a-distance relationship to this fabled city?

Plenty, it turns out. However, it leaves me more with a sense of an American family with all its risings and fallings than a deeper understanding of The Industry. I could easily file this book with works like The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead or The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West. Specktor has written the story of Beau Rosenwald, a man on a mission with true grit and gumption who lands in LA in the early 1960s. He is determined to fulfill his idea of the American Dream, and we want to root for him despite his flaws revealed throughout his story. Rosenwald works his way up in the movie business and finally helps found a new sort of talent agency called American Dream Machine. ADM is meant to be different from the others: ADM wants to care about its clients like members of a family. Soon, Beau’s agency has attracted a large scoop of the local talent and is off and running. Life in LA is good. You can create yourself here.

However, as any Buddhist will tell you, life is transient, especially life in the movie biz. Beau marries and soon has a son and daughter. The union is short-lived and begins to crumble and then explode when the daughter is accidentally shot and killed. Shortly thereafter, the mother disappears while Beau experiences the on-and-off meltdowns we expect people in The Industry to have. Another son appears, this one out of wedlock. Beau bottoms out, but as you might guess early on, he is nothing if not a survivor. His tale is narrated by one of his sons, now grown and himself a survivor of a sometimes difficult Hollywood upbringing. It is often a heartbreaking narration, wonderfully written and told from the safe distance of a lofty perspective, a tale of siblings and parents and their tragedies and celebrations. The relationships in this novel ring true and are the crazy glue which holds the book together. I felt as though I was living in the world Specktor described, that I could pick up a phone and call any one of the characters and ask them what in the hell they thought they were doing with their lives. Specktor has fulfilled the promise of his first novel, That Summertime Sound, which also mixed dreams and relationships into a moving drama.

“If you live long enough,” a character laments in this tale, “you get to play all the parts in the play.” Beau Rosenwald manages many of them by the end of American Dream Machine, which I was sad to finish. Take advantage of this history and read the book; with Specktor as your guide, you too can add more images to a far-away idea of Los Angeles.

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