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Book Review : Hollywood Novel Isn't as Trashy as Title Suggests

September 23, 1985|CAROLYN SEE

Tinsel Town by Catherine Mann (Simon & Schuster: $16.95)

Sometimes it's fun to look at novels with your eyes just slightly out of focus--the way you look at abstract art--so that instead of content, you can see the design. Because sometimes the design tells you more about what's going on than the content.

"Tinsel Town" is a Hollywood novel, you can tell that by the title, obviously. It's a first novel, and by a woman. In this case, the publisher describes the author as "a Hollywood insider and beautiful young reporter for ABC's popular 'Entertainment Tonight.' "

'Greed in the Fast Lane'

The book is described as "a searing novel of love, power, gossip and greed in the fast lane." These words are written on Xeroxed catalogue copy accompanying the book. That means the lady doesn't get a separate letter written about her by the publishing company, let alone a glossy press kit. "Searing," but worth less than half a page, is one of the messages here.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan has bought first serial rights, and written in, at the bottom of the Xeroxed sheet, is news of a paperback sale. In other words, in a scientific experiment conducted by a large corporation, some guinea pigs are given megadoses of Vitamin C and some aren't. Then all the guinea pigs are thrown into a big tank called publishing and marketing. Nobody really knows if decent writing has a thing to do with the experiment; many people were extremely surprised when Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" became a best seller, because it was so intelligent, so ambitious, so well written.

Plot Is Predictable

"Tinsel Town" is certainly no "The Name of the Rose," but neither is it anywhere as trashy as its title and description suggest. The plot is simple and predictable (like the apple in a Cezanne still life, it really isn't the plot that counts here).

Christine Du Rand, a nice girl from the Midwest, has become a name to reckon with in Hollywood. She is a reporter specializing in celebrity interviews, very much like a person on "Entertainment Tonight." Christine is having an affair with a handsome, debonair 49-year-old producer named Blair Montgomery. The ethics here are slightly askew. It's not as though either of them is madly in love with the other, but physically they get along well (what a demure way to describe those sex scenes!), and Christine assumes that at least she and Blair are friends.

Naturally, according to this particular Hollywood formula, Christine has an arch-fiend female enemy, the vindictive and voluptuous Jewel Crosse, who has a powerful sex drive and a very bad temper. Jewel is hard to believe. But many other characters here are dutifully constructed and fairly easy to believe. They're almost too good for a novel called "Tinsel Town."

Furious at His Life Style

There's Jacques Laffont, who writes a gossip column for one of the trades, subsisting on Hollywood party buffets and gifts from celebrities; furious that he has to live that kind of life. There's Denny Bracken, a publicist broadly enough drawn to be a parody, except that one has met people like that. There's another 49-year-old man, parallel to the heartless Blair Montgomery, except that Burton Ratchford has walked out on a wife and three kids and is "just coming to terms with his homosexuality."

In an industry full of users (and this novel owes a heavy debt to the Joyce Haber classic), it is inevitable that just as Blair preys upon Christine, so does Burton Ratchford prey upon a young rock singer, Roland Williams, a star who is also a homosexual. One wishes Roland had been depicted as an actor, since many rock singers, far from being stigmatized by their homosexuality, capitalize on it, where gay actors, acting in heterosexual dramas, must still keep their private lives a secret. . . .

Traveling With a Disguise

Nevertheless, the plot asks us to believe that Roland Williams must travel with a disguise, a "beard," the beautiful Eurasian call girl, Tashi Quan, and some of these scenes, too, have the curious ring of reality.

There's an interesting world here, the world of the working interviewer who travels among celebrities but is not quite one herself; a sense of the person who's there to report, except that the questions of privacy and ethics and doing real harm to another human being, simply in the name of "entertainment," are never really resolved. There's sense, too, of a world full of the appurtenances of the good life, the very best that money can buy, but still, the characters are at the mercy of unkind people, or parents who don't or do love them, and where to have dinner.

Overweight Sidekick

Where to have dinner! One's feeling is that Catherine Mann's favorite part of her novel was about Christine's overweight sidekick who decides to lose 50 pounds in a town full of beautiful men and beautiful meals. Catherine Mann mentions Ma Maison, L' Orangerie, Chasen's, Jimmy's, Spago, Morton's, the Hard Rock Cafe, the Polo Lounge, Chinois, and Pink's ! The reader might quibble about calling 72 Market Street "Dudley Moore's" establishment, since he's only part owner with Liza Minnelli, and it's Tony Bill who greets the guests, but everything else in restaurant land is right on the money, including an excellently realized family fight over breakfast at Nate 'n' Al's.

For a first novelist, Catherine Mann has done an interesting, creditable job of making real a fictional landscape that's been shoddily exploited far too many times.

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