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Oscar-winning director Tarantino explored Hollywood fairy tales circa 1969 in his most recent movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). He now deepens that inquiry in his first novel, which was inspired, in part, by his fondness for typical movie novelizations. While the book’s publication as a 1970s-style mass-market paperback emulates that subgenre, Tarantino goes far beyond its usual parameters in this vividly interiorized, ardently researched, and far-reaching portrayal of individuals spellbound and endangered by Hollywood’s dream factory. Most notable is Tarantino’s delving into the backstory and psyche of cocky and invincible stuntman Cliff Booth to reveal the source of Cliff’s cool and toughness via glimpses into his harrowing combat experiences in WWII. This formidable war hero and stone-cold killer who loves his killer dog is also, gratifyingly enough, a discerning film aficionado, serving as a conduit for Tarantino’s own expert and fascinating reflections on the state of movies at this reverberating inflection point as postwar cinematic tough guys give way to counterculture antiheroes. Once the stunt double for Western star Rick Dalton, Cliff is reduced to working as Rick’s driver, gofer, and ego-booster as the pompadour-sporting actor struggles to halt the precipitous slide of his stale career. As Cliff and Rick curse the “weirdo” hippies and, unbeknownst to them, come into contact with the worst of that world, murderous cult leader Charles Manson and his Family, Tarantino captures the zeitgeist in the offerings of L.A. radio stations and TV channels, and the startling innovations of Rick’s neighbor, “rock star” director Roman Polanski.
When Rick lands a part in a promising new Western series, Tarantino links the show’s story of a besieged rancher and his fractured family to the archetypal tragedies of the Greeks and Shakespeare with gritty humor and striking insights. Scenes on the set also deliver the novel’s bright and hopeful guiding light, eight-year-old acting prodigy Trudi Frazer. Provoking, wily, controversial, and revered Tarantino, celebrated for his screenplays, truly is a literary force, stepping forward as a novelist adept at using an omniscient point of view to powerful effect in a novel driven by its characters’ inner lives and smart, witty, and salty dialogue of propulsion and nuance, hilarity and heartbreak. Departing from the movie in intriguing ways, this is a send-up of the old-school yet still kicking heterosexual, white-male mindset rife with desire, resentment, entitlement, fear, and misogyny. It will also offer a stereoscopic experience for most readers as they envision the characters as played by the movie’s cast, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and picture the settings from the movie, a doubling that will inspire fanatic comparisons between film and page. But this is a work of literary art in its own right, a novel that, if the movie didn’t exist, would captivate readers with its own knowing vision and zestful power.
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