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The Second Coming

WAYFARING AT WAVERLY IN SILVER LAKE: Stories, By James McCourt, Alfred A. Knopf: 324 pp., $25

July 07, 2002|GAVIN LAMBERT | Gavin Lambert is the author of "Inside Daisy Clover" and "The Slide Area," which were recently reissued. His most recent books are "On Cukor" and "Mainly About Lindsay Anderson."

The legendary Hollywood star Kaye Wayfaring made her fictional debut in James McCourt's "Kaye Wayfaring in 'Avenged' "--"Avenged" being the title of the Hollywood star's first comeback movie in the early 1980s. In the sequel, "Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake" (like the earlier book, a series of linked stories or episodes), she emerges from her Waverly Drive hideaway for a repeat performance 10 years later in "The Undertow," director Orphrey Whither's "most uncompromising foray into auteur sadism." The movie industry thinks Wayfaring is over the hill at 50, and she's overweight as well, but as Astarte ("fuchsia-haired Beverly Hills astrologer, industry scold, civic activist") tells her: "Your career has always been one long embrace of your obstacles, which you have always realized as your material."

The idea of transmuting personal obstacles into art has a universal resonance, and it's an idea that recurs throughout McCourt's fiction, beginning with his first novel "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" (just reissued by New York Review Books), about a Czech-Irish opera singer who undergoes a severe identity crisis while singing Isolde at the Met. Another kind of diva appeared in "Time Remaining," with the former transvestite ballerina Odette O'Doyle, once described as "the woman Toumanova is trying to be," carrying out the wishes of several friends and peers, all casualties of AIDS, by scattering their ashes over various European locations. Odette suffers from "survivor guilt" when (s)he returns, then realizes that by writing the stories of the dead, "there will be in the telling a point at which they will not yet have been dead."

Wayfaring is in the process of resurrection or, more accurately, a second coming. "She is walking the tightrope to greatness. There has been nothing like it since Jeanne Eagels in 'The Letter,' " a friend remarks after seeing "Avenged." There was Oscar buzz then but no nomination. This time, after "The Undertow," there is Oscar buzz and a nomination. "Do I want the thing?" she wonders. "What's not to want? Don't ask."

Like many of McCourt's characters, she has moods that swing from dark to brilliant, with an intervening pause at darkly brilliant. She's haunted by the memory of her mother's suicide and of two Hollywood casualties, Marilyn Monroe, whom she knew and liked, and Peg Entwistle, whom she never met. (Entwistle was the out-of-work bit player who jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign in 1932, and Wayfaring finds it "surprising" that when the sign was repaired and abbreviated to Hollywood, "they didn't bother to create a mechanical Peg Entwistle replica that would jump off the H once a day, at noon, accompanied by civil defense sirens.")

Wayfaring's adolescent son Tristan also haunts her interior monologues, especially after he flees in panic to a remote Pacific beach after realizing that he's gay. He is befriended by a group of young druggies as terrifyingly well-read as Tristan himself and nearly dies after they inject seawater into his veins. When he recovers, he looks back on the episode with a mixture of introspection and detachment as "a self-contained exploration of personal experience that hopefully also dramatizes the sense of life as an elusive process whose depths resist interpretation."

The episode is also one of the most ironically imagined yet devastating accounts of homosexual panic ever written, because its victim is otherwise so super-cool, beautiful and articulate. Tristan shares a very personal gift of the gab with his mother and her friends, notably the producer Leland de Longpre, who describes contemporary movie stars as "twentysomething freeze-dried-sock-puppet airheads untempted by any articulated form of knowledge, who in deep-stall idiot bliss make pizza-boy eyes into the Steadicam lens and whisper 'Eat me.' " Did any Hollywood producer ever talk like that? Unfortunately not.

Did any Hollywood star sit alone, like Wayfaring, in a downtown coffee shop on Halloween, "fingering the cubes in the sugar bowl and remembering the sugar skulls in Mexico on the Day of the Dead"? Or have the audacity to remain in her car outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night while the Best Actress award is announced?

"Has it ever occurred to you one may be artificial by nature?" Tristan's cry from the heart is also a cry from the author's heart, for McCourt is a brilliant practitioner of what Cyril Connolly called the Mandarin style. Its aim, according to Connolly (who cited the later novels of Henry James as avatar of the style) was "to make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one." But, as Oscar Wilde anticipated, its other equally important, aim was to turn the comedy of manners into a medium for subverting manners and morals.

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