Is it too early to start experiencing holiday dread? Probably. But that hasn’t stopped me from practicing political arguments in the shower and sulking on the couch while binge-eating. However, I did stumble upon some needed comedic relief the other day in the form of some questionably helpful letters written by Zack Sternwalker.
The first letter in Please Let Me Help, addressed to the publisher (the feminist, Portland-based Microcosm Publishing), clues us in on the origin story for this collected book of letters. A bad divorce, unemployment, and moving back in with his mother urges Sternwalker to reach out to companies and celebrities he thinks could use a little helping hand now that he has some extra time and a quest for meaning or employment.
The result is an enjoyable foray into the down-on-his-luck screenwriter’s idle mind. He never seems to give up hope that his advice will be gladly picked up, and he stays immune to humility as he writes Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Cruise, and others, pitching screenplays about Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Harbor complete with working titles (that may not work that well at all—for example Sammy Davis Jr.’s film could be called “Little Dancing Panda, Watch Him Sing Softly, The Story of Sammy Davis Sr.’s Son, and Candy Corn Cadillac”). Sternwalker is so generous with his time and ideas, he even includes a drawing of a vampire at the end of every letter “as a sign of good faith.” Truthfully, these vampire drawings may just be regular doodles of regular people doing regular things (selling glasses, getting a prostate exam, making phone calls)—they all just have fangs added.
At times, one wonders if they’ve traversed too far into the nonsensical with no chance to make it out unscathed, but Sternwalker isn’t just vomiting silliness onto a blank page and calling it art. These are letters that flow from one to next and then call back to one another. In one, he chastises the country of Canada for invading the Middle East and later tells Jerry Bruckheimer:
In the last few months I’ve written a beautiful script about the terrible bombing in Pearl Harbor (I was amazed to find that no movie has ever been made dealing with this horrific event). Moreover, I think a film of this type is very timely what with all the trouble between Canada and foreign countries (if they want to go to war, we might as well cash in).
Later, he tells Tom Cruise “This is my second screenplay and I’m currently working with Jerry Bruckheimer on the first.” With these callbacks, we’re able to see Sternwalker isn’t operating at random. He has an overall picture in mind, even if we’re not immediately privy to it.
Even the back of the book carries the voice of the rest of the collection. For blurbs, we’re given tongue-in-cheek quotes from Sternwalker’s mom who’s happy for her boy and wants him out of her house; his neighbor who wonders about the odd noises coming from next door; Clark, Sternwalker’s mailman, who’s “a little disappointed that there was no mention of how hard the U.S. postal service worked in getting these letters to their recipients”; and an ex-student who seems to remember Sternwalker “eventually got fired.”
All silliness aside, Please Let Me Help manages to serve up some actually helpful lessons. When life isn’t the greatest, it’s important to find or make meaning for yourself, even if that means writing a bunch of (mostly) unanswered letters. Writers are reminded to keep writing and submitting their work, and to do their research beforehand (for example, telling Jerry Bruckheimer to direct the first movie about Pearl Harbor when he’s already done such a thing in 2001 probably isn’t the best way to get noticed). Finally, this collection of letters is a good reminder to find humor in the everyday and to not take ourselves or our perceived failures so seriously.
Will Zack Sternwalker solve all holiday malaise with Please Let Me Help? Maybe not (though maybe he can write a letter with some suggestions). He will definitely provide a momentary escape from the serious, though, always ready to lend a helpful hand.