Our subversive days

Arguably, our sole heir to the legacies of Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick (with a touch of Yeats thrown in for heroic good measure), Los Angeles poetic novelist Steve Erickson has surprised the literati with Zeroville, his most accessible—yet hypnotically subversive—offering to date.

In a move that may prove as dramatic as Madison Smartt Bell’s mid-career U-turn from experimental to historical novelist, an uncharacteristically succinct Erickson escorts us through 454 episodic chapters in the life of film-freak-turned-movie-editor Ike “Vikar” Jerome. Sporting a cranial tattoo of Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun as well as a borderline autistic knowledge of Hollywood history, Vikar’s Zelig-like interactions with an auteur-worshipping film industry make him the oddly beguiling leading man in a tale that progresses (and regresses) from end-of-the-’60s Hollywood on to dawning-of-punk CBGB’s and off again to some eerie, liminal space in which political unrest, psychic scarification, subliminal media and the sacrifices of Abraham are all intercut.

Granted, this may not sound like the formula for the feel-good read of 2008, but it’s to Erickson’s credit that such characteristically weighty themes are interlaced with enough imagination and irony to make Zeroville a compulsively engaging tale. It’s also unexpectedly linear—coming, as it does, from the surrealistically inclined writer who loosened Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings from her historical moorings in Arc d’X and plunged the mythopoetic depths of an underwater L.A. in Our Ecstatic Days—with a brisk pace that owes more to film than poetry.

In fact, it takes just the first 20 pages for Vikar to arrive in Hollywood, assault a lunch companion with a food tray (for misidentifying his tattoo as a scene from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause), get himself arrested and beaten as a suspect in the Manson murders, search for Monty Clift’s spirit in the Roosevelt Hotel and confront a ghost of his own through flashbacks in which he pretends to sleep while his father kneels at his side and whispers about God’s hour of weakness in staying the hand of Abraham. This last scene calls to mind another Ray film: the expressionist classic Bigger Than Life (not to be confused with the Biggie Smalls biopic of the same name), in which a pre-Lolita James Mason, hopped up on steroids and scripture, climbs the staircase of his suburban home with the intention of sacrificing his only son. As his wife begs him to stop and reminds him that God told Abraham not to go through with it, Mason casts her aside and proclaims in a biblical roar, “God was wrong.” Ironically, Bigger Than Life is one of the few cult classics that doesn’t get mentioned in Zeroville, a tale in which a Sylvia Kristel-obsessed Spanish revolutionary turns up as a publicist at Cannes and a tied-up burglar offers hours of insightful film commentary while he and Vikar wait for the police to arrive.

Erickson has, after all, spent many years moonlighting as a film critic (for Los Angeles magazine, Salon and the LA Weekly magazine; he also teaches in the CalArts MFA writing program and edits its literary journal, Black Clock). But he is also the “major writer in our midst” The Wall Street Journal places in the company of Pynchon, Nabokov and DeLillo, so it’s no surprise that the reader is soon drawn into unexpectedly elliptical realms that Vikar’s back story only begins to foreshadow. This gradual discovery and deciphering is part of what makes Erickson’s writing such a profound pleasure and Zeroville a worthy addition to his growing literary legacy.