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NOVEL

Fangs for the Memory

A PLACE TO FALL,\o7 By Roger Director (Villard: $22; 243 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Tim Appelo | Tim Appelo is film critic for the Oregonian in Portland and a former senior writer for Entertainment Weekly

In perhaps the weirdest scene in Saul Bellow's novel "Humboldt's Gift," the crude thug Rinaldo Cantabile pulls a gun on the highbrow narrator, Charlie Citrine, and forces him to watch Cantabile make a bowel movement. The hood wants to humiliate the highbrow, and the highbrow doesn't get it.

"I started to think," muses Citrine, "of all the volumes of ape behavior I had read in my time . . . it was even possible that I was a more limited person than a fellow like Cantabile, in spite of my concentration on intellectual achievement. For it would never have occurred to me to inflict anger on anyone by such means."

Heck, he should have come to Hollywood, where even the intellectuals behave like apes and knuckle-walking Cantabile types measure their power by the stink they can get away with raising. Take the hominids in Roger Director's new novel "A Place to Fall," which is not just a roman a clef but an acutely observed work of anthropology.

"A Place to Fall" concerns Billy Ziff, a New York newspaper columnist who gets a job writing for the plutonium-hot cop show "Under the Law." Director, whose name sounds like an allegorical character out of Pilgrim's Progress, was in fact a New York Daily News columnist who got a job writing for "Hill Street Blues."

Ziff produces a second show, "Father Joey," which launches unknown actor Tony Paris to TV fame, movie offers, and a recording career, despite the fact that, as Billy observes, "he carries a tune about as well as a tracheotomy patient." Director was the executive producer of "Moonlighting."

"Paris" is a feminine rhyme with "Willis," whose speech patterns, singing prowess, recent role in a sci-fi action film and appalling response to instant stardom the character Paris shares.

Bill Ziff chalks up Paris' appeal to his big, melancholy, telegenic eyes ("yellow moons setting into an amber bay") and "that playful little sideways smile of his--you know the one."

But Billy Ziff knows what Paris is full of. Once Billy's closest bud and blood bro', the post-fame Paris becomes a Rinaldo Cantabile-like bully, shutting down the show until Billy knuckles under to his demand that Billy sack a talented director who resists Paris' dimwitted, crudely self-serving story ideas.

Summoned to Paris' trailer, Billy confronts the star on his throne--a toilet with an open-door policy and Paris' pants around his ankles. "This is my show," Billy reminds Paris. "I created it. And you have a contract."

Defecating loudly, with disgusting sound effects akin to Anthony Burgess' dyspepsia novel "Enderby," Paris snaps off some toilet paper and says, "Fellas, decency, please, let's not debase an intelligent discussion with 'you signed a piece of paper.' "

Whether or not Director means to depict the actual antics backstage at "Moonlighting" and "Hill Street Blues," and regardless of his fairness or lack of it, he has surely given us the straight poop about Hollywood in general. It is, as Billy Ziff mourns, a wasteland, a place where "the dread of personal obligation hangs over every conversation."

Tony Paris isn't nearly as cruelly amusing as the guys who write and produce and program his shows. These are men of firmly held values. When Billy, suspecting Tony of moonlighting with his wife, takes vengeance that imperils the network's cash cow, network President Carlin Alemo bellows at him, "Cyanide in Tylenol was nothing compared to this!"

Even those outside the industry who don't care how much Alemo has in common with Brandon Tartikoff have some reason to read "A Place to Fall." Readers oblivious to the barbs Director directs at certain backstabbing actors and credit-grabbing writers can savor his way with a phrase.

Remote control car locks wielded by Hollywood players arriving at an awards banquet chirp "like the caged nightingales sported in the retinues of potentates." Tony Paris' post-success house "looked like an award. It jutted up like a Lucite cube on a granite plinth from a hilltop."

Director does not yet tower over fiction. His opening flash-forward lessens the suspense of both the Tony-versus-Billy plot and the Billy's-troubled-marriage subplot. Billy's wife never gets the sharp focus the guys get.

Still, "A Place to Fall" is a book not to miss. Director memorably, breezily renders characters who are, as Carrie Fisher put it perfectly in her roman a clef, "Delusions of Grandma," "ruthless and warm and glad." In the toothy grins they constantly flash, only the fangs are for real. And so is this a toothsome j'accuse of a comic novel.

* ROGER DIRECTOR will participate in a panel on Hollywood novels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books today at 4 p.m.

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