Wednesday, November 7, 2007

From vaudeville to late-night video

For some reason, I've always loved Hollywood tales, true or not. I've read several biographies of Marilyn Monroe, each with their own theory about how she died, from murder to a mishap involving enemas, sleeping pills, lack of fluids and overwork. I read Lillian Gish's account of the dawn of the moving picture, back when the concept of close-ups and feature-length films were new. I enjoyed Lana Turner's autobiography, as well as seamier stuff like that of Tatum O'Neal and Danny Bonaduce. In fact, I still have a booklet I received in my Easter basket as a child, published by one of the tabloid magazines and called "Hollywood Mysteries," where I first learned the stories of the Black Dahlia, the unsolved murder of Thelma Todd, the mysterious death of the first Superman (whose real name I don't remember), etc.

So when I saw Niagara Falls All Over Again, a novel by Elizabeth McCracken, I decided to check it out. This novel follows the careers of the fictional comedy team Carter and Sharp, told from the perspective of straight man Mose (or Mike, as he's known professionally) Sharp, from vaudeville to movies, radio and television.

The story makes the typical arc of any show-biz tale. There are the early years, full of struggle and optimism. The future icons have nothing but dreams and hopes. They work hard, travel a lot, sacrifice all material comfort in pursuit of their ambition. Then, the big break comes. They ride high, they get all the material comforts they want and then some. This period cannot last, though, and then there's the long fall from grace, often fueled by drugs and alcohol. If it's an autobiography, it usually ends with the main character getting clean and vowing (if not actually succeeding in) a comeback. If it's a biography, that usually means that the subject didn't survive, and died of an OD, often in a run-down hotel room, or the beat-up Chevy in which they were forced to live.

The end of Carter and Sharp's tale is free from that particular melodrama. Rather, it ends with the more mundane issues that dissolve the partnerships, careers and attachments of an average person. One person changed while the other one didn't. Committments to home and family take over committments to friends. One person starts to feel taken advantage of, which makes the other one defensive. There's alcohol and infidelity involved, but it plays a secondary role.

There aren't really a lot of novels on male relationships. I guess there's something in our culture that makes it almost impossible for straight men to admit they love one another, although women are free to declare their love for their female friends without having their sexuality questioned in the least. That was one thing I enjoyed about this book. Despite the fact that their partnership doesn't end on the best note, Mose isn't shy about proclaiming his love for his larger-than-life partner, who he still misses well into his eighties.

Vaudeville is fading from our collective memory. There aren't many performers left who got their start that way. Those that did, like Gracie Allen and George Burns, or Laurel and Hardy, belong to a whole other generation, existing in the collective subconscious (as Mose points out Carter and Sharp did) only as answers to crossword puzzles, or names on DVDs in Wal-Mart's dollar bin. The early chapters of the book introduce it to the generations like my own, whose grandparents didn't even get to see vaudeville live. You get to experience the surreal quality to the acts (like the one-legged contortionist), the sweat and hard work, the impermanence of it all (Mose goes from replacing a straight man who left the industry, to stepping in for anyone who was sick, and gets his big break stepping in for a straight man who was too drunk that night to go on -- virtually none of it under his own name).

That's always been one of my favorite things about fiction: the way it can preserve the past like nothing else can. Museums can save the material pieces of the past. Documentarians can describe what the past was like. But a good novel, like Niagara Falls all over again, can actually take you there.

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