You will probably not be shocked to learn that the children of rich movie-industry parents are likely to grow up spoiled, unhappy and mentally unhealthy. Robert Westbrook brings personal experience to the subject, however, as the son of Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham. His self-written bio sheet claims he couldn't publish this book while his mother was alive. Best known as the mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald, she presumably had standards in fiction. "Rich Kids" would have horrified her.
Jonno Singer, the narrator, is the son of Alexander Singer, a literary agent who becomes a studio president, a man attracted to women on the basis of what Westbrook knowingly describes as "Hollywood Love . . . the kind of love which mysteriously evaporates the moment the circumstances of mutual self-advantage disappear."
The elder Singer's first wife commits suicide after her career and husband fail her. His second wife is Corina Norman, "a fabulously sexpot actress," and Jonno's mother.
When Corina's career cools off, as "it" girl careers inevitably do, she becomes a self-pitying drunk. This is no great loss to Jonno, because you can't lose what you don't have. "She was hardly a mother at all except for a few minutes here and there in various photo opportunities, where she smiled into the camera with Rags and Carl on either side of her, and me--the baby--generally in her lap. The moment the photographer was finished, she'd brush us off like flies and return us to the care of our butler, Albert. . . . Our crime was being born and ruining her beautiful figure."
When Corina's career goes from cool to cold outright failure, Jonno's father, true to Hollywood Love, finds another wife. Enter French star Michelle Cordell, "sluttish and slovenly," usually stoned on hashish. She gives Jonno such maternal advice as "You must not smoke marijuana and drink alcohol at the same time. It will make you impotent when you try to make love to the girls!" Jonno and his two brothers, Rags and Carl, are joined by Michelle's children, David, and Zoe, the half-sister Jonno describes with every erotic adjective he can muster.
"Rich Kids" has something like a plot--Jonno's father is murdered with his own Oscar and the question is which family member did it, but this is forgotten for many chapters while the narrator details his family life:
His oldest brother Rags is dying of AIDS. Rags, verbally abused by Corina, spends several years totaling cars for sport and having sex with the beloved butler Albert. Carl, second oldest, badly burned in a fire started by Corina when drunk, is a semi-socialist who runs a shelter for the homeless. Arguably the worst off and least interesting (until she murders someone) is little sister Opera, a 15-year-old TV star about to make the first "environmentally conscious teen movie." Half-brother David, who learns young Republicanism from the Los Angeles Harvard School and S&M from Gretchen the maid, grows up to run dad's movie studio. Most important to Jonno is Zoe, of whom he can't stop himself from saying things like, "If I felt I could get away with it, I'd let my tongue come out and rest against her inner thigh. I used to imagine I was an abalone clinging to a bare girl leg."
If this sounds incestuous, it is. Much in "Rich Kids" seems wrong, particularly the way in which Westbrook exposes and trashes the warped values of Hollywood while at the same time trying to move the reader with the narrator's oft-stated lust and star-crossed "love" for his half-sister Zoe.
This incest is a direct byproduct of the very world the narrator and author despise. (Zoe's father began molesting her when she was 5 and continued into her teen years.) While Westbrook occasionally hits chords that ring with awful truth, he has the Hollywood habit of shirking truth's consequences.
"Rich Kids" ends with Jonno married to Zoe, flying back and forth between Los Angeles, where he has taken control of his dad's movie studio, and Peru, where Zoe feeds llamas. Jonno lives with her as though she's his wife, and we're to believe their life is a happy one.
The book is also cheapened by sentences out of "The Perils of Pauline" that end almost every chapter: "The limousine took off in a ride I will never forget"; careless editing--tenses are forgotten and "you're" is used as a possessive; the dozen or so times you're told it's not easy being a rich kid; constant explaining that undercuts the natural strength of the action.
Yet somehow "Rich Kids" is disturbingly compelling. This, I suspect, is thanks to the powerful allure the perversions and ruins of Hollywood still possess, something Westbrook understands, has seemingly suffered from, and here exploits.