For a debut novelist with a quiet literary sensibility to take on the bloated, overexposed milieu of celebrity culture — and to approach it as a head-on dissection — requires a certain bravado. The soul-sucking Hollywood machine is an area well tread by journalists, memoirists, filmmakers and novelists.
Christine Sneed’s debut novel doesn’t exactly fulfill the promise of her book’s title. Much of her insights into Hollywood culture feel all too familiar. But it is an entertaining, formally inventive read. Renn Ivins is a twice-divorced, charismatic A-list star, a Clint Eastwood- or Robert Redford-like character with artistic integrity and sex appeal who in his early 50s, has turned his hand to screenwriting and directing. He also founded the requisite charity, a Katrina-relief organization called Life After the Storm that’s conveniently in sync with his most recent film, Bourbon at Dusk, filming in New Orleans.
Renn is like a swirling, black hole around which the people in his life orbit. His daughter, Anna, is a talented medical intern, but she has also succumbed to an affair with her much older, married attending doctor. Renn’s son, Will, flounders in his father’s shadow, seemingly paralyzed by privilege. One of Renn’s ex-wives has just published a tell-all memoir, and his young starlet girlfriend is fraught with conflict over her feelings for Will, who’s in love with her.
What makes this book so different from the standard Tinseltown saga is the way Sneed tells her story. She is a lauded short-fiction writer — her collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry won numerous awards — and Little Known Facts feels almost like an anthology of linked short stories. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, and through these supporting characters Sneed paints an intimate, well-rounded portrait of Renn, illuminating, from the inside, our society’s obsession with celebrity.
There are also excerpts of Renn’s movie reviews, snippets of poetry, love letters, Renn’s journal entries and notes from the writing of his ex-wife’s scathing memoir. The movie reviews are effusive and overblown; the Q&A and memoir outtakes are purposefully trite. It’s all a successful, if obvious, send-up of the types of pop cultural offshoots that celebrity culture generates.
Ultimately, the rigor of Sneed’s prose, her well-drawn characters and her eye for precise, telling detail aren’t quite enough to counterbalance that her narrative offers few little known facts about Hollywood or even about the more universal struggles of familial strife and the search for love and finding one’s place in the world. One almost wishes she had applied her sure hand to a more benign but perhaps more fertile topic.
That said, those who enjoy reading about celebrity culture will find that the world that Sneed creates — a blend of truth and fiction that weaves real life actors and directors into Renn’s life — makes for a clever and fun read.
Deborah Vankin reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.