Tim Blake Nelson novel City of Blows review


As a beloved character actor taking a spin through the literary world, Tim Blake Nelson is fittingly drawn to detours in “City of Blows,” his unfocused if intriguing debut novel about bitterness and ambition in Hollywood.

Nelson, also an occasional playwright and filmmaker, seemingly aims to capture the totality of the modern movie business in a tale framed around one agent’s indiscretions, a power struggle between two producers and the unassuming director caught in the middle. But the 58-year-old author appears less interested in that central story than in its myriad digressions, as flashbacks paint a chilling portrait of the disparate and damaged personalities ensnared by Hollywood’s allure.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

Chief among them is David Levit, a classically trained actor and budding director interested in helming a film adaptation of a provocative best-selling novel called “Coal.” Known for riding a filmmaker friend’s coattails and haunted by tragedy from his college years, Levit sees the prestige project about race in America as a make-or-break opportunity.

He’s hired by Jacob Rosenthal, an abrasive but creatively daring Hollywood power broker hardened by his father’s harsh brand of mid-century masculinity. But preproduction is disrupted by downtrodden producer Brad Shlansky, a Long Island huckster who was forced to grow up fast and eventually ventured to Hollywood with his two sisters. Fueled by old resentments, Shlansky becomes set on scuttling “Coal” with the help of his childhood friend Paul Aiello, a duplicitous agent embroiled in a #MeToo scandal.

It all makes for an unflinchingly cynical take on Hollywood’s machinations and the ways in which outsize egos compromise art. In one telling passage, Nelson sums up his novel’s key players: “The story seemed to tell itself over and over in Los Angeles. Hyperaggressive, unfathomably ambitious, and natively intelligent young men, and sometimes women, came west unencumbered by conscience or morals and seemed to will themselves into the very status they pretended early on to have but manifestly didn’t.”

But Nelson has more on his mind as his characters navigate the rapidly shifting entertainment landscape, amid the rise of streaming and the fall of the mid-budget drama. (“Television got smarter,” Rosenthal says, “and so movies got louder and stupider and more violent.”) Another plot thread touches on the push and pull of challenging the audience while adhering to fluctuating standards of political correctness. “City of Blows” turns into a full-on Time’s Up parable in its back half as it depicts the harrowing indiscretions of a Harvey Weinstein-esque titan. And the impending upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic looms, with the novel spanning the better part of a century but largely set in early 2020.

10 books to read in February

Nelson weaves through this narrative via nonlinear plotting, frequent point-of-view shifts and numerous forays into side characters’ perspectives. There’s something to be said for keeping readers on their toes, but the ambitious structure grows tiresome. Meandering and momentum-sapping, the backstories imbue the protagonists with pathos by burdening the reader with exposition. At times, the storytelling grows so unwieldy — think flashbacks folded within flashbacks — that readers can’t help but lose their bearings. Although Nelson shows an interest in deconstructing his characters’ love lives, with a particular interest in exploring interracial relationships, the women rarely come across as more than an afterthought.

“City of Blows” is at its most absorbing when examining the compromises, backstabbing and bureaucracy that often trump talent in Hollywood. As Nelson writes, “Anyone unassociated with the film industry would have marveled at how creditable movies got made at all, so needlessly cumbersome and ego-afflicted was the process.” Insights into script doctoring and acting methods — no doubt colored by Nelson’s decades of experience in the industry, as the writer-director of four feature films and a go-to actor for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and the Coen brothers — are plenty compelling.

That history in the business also adds a metatextual layer to this actor-penned novel about an actor adapting a novel. When Rosenthal blasts prologues and epilogues as being reserved for “writers who couldn’t figure out how to get their ideas into the bulk of their book,” it reads as a gleeful self-skewering from Nelson, who dutifully — and effectively — bookends “City of Blows” with those devices.

Some books are impossible to turn into movies. Why let that stop you?

Unfortunately, Nelson precedes the wrenching epilogue with a bombastic, tone-shifting finale that’s as abrupt as it is incongruent. When hundreds of pages of methodically laid groundwork are cast aside so jarringly, one can’t help but wonder whether the journey through Nelson’s Los Angeles was worth it. Much like the metropolis it satirizes, “City of Blows” may be too sprawling for its own good.

Thomas Floyd is a writer and editor for The Washington Post.

Unnamed Press. 456 pp. $30.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *