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To an Actor Dying Young : FINAL PERFORMANCE by James Brown (William Morrow: $17.95; 335 pp.)

February 14, 1988|David Thomson | Thomson is the author of the novel "Suspects" and of "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes." He is now working on a biography of David O. Selznick. and

We are in Echo Park, just a few years ago. It is July 4th. As dusk settles, there are kids in the streets setting off firecrackers. We are in a novel, about to observe the suicide of an elder brother, Mike, as described by the younger brother, Jay. Mike is a movie actor who went too swiftly from early promise to disappointment and delusion; Jay is on his way to becoming a writer. But Mike is alone; Jay imagines what happened:

"Outside another string of firecrackers went pop, pop.

"As he sat on the edge of the bed he turned the cylinder to a loaded chamber and listened for it to snap into place. Slowly he stretched out along the mattress, his body fully extended, his lips around the barrel. He didn't think about his brother. He didn't think of his father or mother or anyone or anything except the cool metal in his mouth and his finger steady on the trigger. Then came the big one, the cherry bomb from inside the house. It slammed his head back against the pillow and left powder burns around his mouth.


"Pop, pop, pop."

This is by no means ineffective writing, even if it has the simultaneous drive and hollowness of much screen writing. "Final Performance" is a serious, vulnerable work, rather awkward in the passage just quoted: The author's Jay, the storyteller, cannot know what his brother did or how he felt. It sounds odd when he insists on what Mike was not thinking about. Jay, and James Brown, have to pretend to that knowledge, and in contriving the moment, they risk making it fake. Thus we have the underlining irony of small echoing explosions on the street, as suicide makes its forlorn gesture of independence. And every pop is pat and literary.

"Final Performance" is framed by that suicide, and by its enigma. Mike and Jay were so close growing up, and Mike did so much to help Jay survive their family wreckage, what can Jay make of the brother's withdrawal? Is it enough to say that Mike went away from the poor part of San Jose into acting, a love affair, marriage, success, failure, alcoholism and paranoia in Los Angeles? The details are spelled out in the novel--Mike's experience as recounted by Jay--and we surely feel the kid's admiration and his loss as Mike slips into nightmare while Jay tries to give up petty thievery, take school seriously and make peace with a simple, hard-working father.

There's a wealth of material in "Final Performance," and none of it is handled badly. It's just that the various episodes don't always fit as a whole book. Jay's narrative of Mike's life goes way beyond legitimate guessing. Yet the character of the mother--selfish, vicious, changing her name to keep ahead of the law, but a huge emotional force for the two boys--is kept deliberately unclear, as if Brown wanted to convey a child's inability to grasp a dark, grown-up existence. We do feel that the crisis of the story helps Jay grow up, and solidifies him as a writer. But Brown has still some way to go in mastering the craft of describing a group of characters.

Now, cut--to a reality that is not owned up to in the author's biography on the jacket. James Brown is the younger brother of Barry Brown, an actor who shot himself on June 26, 1978--too desperate to wait for firecrackers. Barry Brown had two great successes--as a juvenile delinquent on "The Mod Squad" and in Robert Benton's "Bad Company" (1972). Mike's hits are as a delinquent on "Vice Squad" and in a movie, "A Rough Kind," which bears an unmistakable resemblance to Benton's.

Both Mike and Barry Brown were obsessive collectors of the obituaries of actors and horror film buffs. They were both alcoholics, willing victims of fearful moods more safely left on the screen. I do not know how far such echoing extends, and I am only aware of these similarities by referring to an excellent piece on Barry Brown by Todd McCarthy in the November-December, 1978, issue of Film Comment.

I would think that James Brown has invented and omitted a good deal: His brother Barry played Winterbourne in Peter Bogdanovich's film, "Daisy Miller," no trace of which is to be found in "Final Performance." Nor do I mean to suggest that the novelist has done anything improper in resorting to family history. This is a book about the wounding mystery felt by those left to mourn a suicide.

Still, fiction needs its own life. There are things in this book--the firecrackers, the father, an episode with tangled tree roots--that feel applied, like soupy color cooked up in a writing class--sensible, "correct," yet so studious that they smother the necessary waywardness of these characters. I wanted more of the mother, so dangerous and alluring I hope she is a total fabrication, and more of the spiraling descent of an unstable, intelligent actor such as is touched on in McCarthy's article on Barry Brown.

"Final Performance" is above average, and clearly it will fascinate anyone attuned to the real mysteries of Hollywood's underworld. But I think James Brown needed to invent more, or less--to begin again with a story about brothers; or to give us, quite simply, a biography of Barry Brown in which the author reported and was forced to wonder, forever affected by fatal distance and the impossibility of being there, or of stopping the inexplicable shot.

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