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That '50s family scene in movie land

San Remo Drive: A Novel From Memory, Leslie Epstein, Handsel Books: 244 pp., $24

June 15, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is author of the upcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Leslie Epstein is an accomplished and prolific writer, perhaps best known for his tragicomic Holocaust novel, "King of the Jews." But the key to understanding and appreciating his latest book is that he is the son of Philip G. Epstein and the nephew of Julius J. Epstein, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of such Hollywood classics as "Casablanca" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." Epstein's family can be discerned just beneath the surface of "San Remo Drive," a haunting and ultimately heartbreaking account of what it was like to grow up in the movie colony of Southern California in the 1940s and '50s.

Richard Jacobi, whose voice we hear as narrator of "San Remo Drive," is the son of a producer who very much resembles Epstein's famous father. Richard's brother, Bartie, is a charming but disturbed young man who bangs his head against the wall until it is bloody and who pounds out unpublishable manuscripts in such abundance that they ultimately fill the basement of the big house on San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades, the seat of the Jacobi clan. Their mother, Lotte, is a lovable but grotesque Hollywood matron who is capable of extraordinary and even shocking gestures of both affection and affliction.

"I'll tell you the truth," says Lotte to her two sons. "You'd have both been better off if you'd been orphans."

The crisis that sets the story in motion is the accusation of disloyalty that is lodged against the elder Jacobi during the McCarthy era: "Have you ever been a member of a subversive organization?" Norman Jacobi is asked by his interrogators in Washington, D.C., and he answers with an audacious joke: "Warner Brothers." But Jacobi is spared the worst outrages of the blacklist when he dies in a car accident and leaves his family to suffer the fall from grace in his place.

"Un-Americans not allowed" says a classmate to the two Jacobi boys when they try to board the school bus. And Adlai E. Stevenson pointedly avoids calling on the widowed Lotte while in town to raise money for his 1952 presidential campaign: "It was as if Norman was on the blacklist," complains Lotte, "even after he'd died."

How much of "San Remo Drive" is a thinly veiled autobiography? Epstein is coy on the question: "The events and characters of this novel have passed through the magnetic field of the imagination -- or perhaps it is the other way around, and all that is fanciful has been caught in the seine net of memory," goes a wry admonition on the copyright notice page of the book. "[I]n any event, the reader would be making a mistake if he or she assumed that any resemblance between an incident or character in this book, and an event or person from real life, now dead or still living, was anything other than coincidental."

But Epstein protests too much. He repeatedly and insistently blurs the line between fantasy and memory by literally naming names, juxtaposing flesh-and-blood figures with characters whom we are instructed to regard as fictional. "In 1953 Lee Cobb -- whose violin the nine-year-old Norman used to borrow for his weekly lessons -- named him as a member of the Young Communist League," writes Epstein. The neighbor whose Doberman pinscher frightens the Jacobi boys is Thomas Mann, living in exile in the Palisades, and the family friend who sets up a movie screen in the Jacobi living room to show "an early cut of 'Sunset Boulevard' " is Billy Wilder:

" 'You're dead!' shouted Bartie, addressing the floating corpse of Bill Holden. 'Shut up, shut up, shut up! You can't be talking!' "

The novel begins with four vivid and revelatory scenes set between 1948 and 1960. We witness the fall of the Jacobi family from wealth and privilege after the death of the patriarch; we follow Richard and Bartie on an ill-starred road trip into the Arizona desert and a rollicking adventure in the bars and brothels of Tijuana; above all, we see how Richard, a gifted painter, struggles to make and keep a human connection with those closest to him, not only his mother and brother, but also the black couple who serve as their housekeepers and the girl next door who is both Richard's first artist's model and his first love.

Epstein conjures up Southern California in the '50s with an abundance of deftly observed and deeply evocative details -- the Ontra Cafeteria and Jack's-at-the-Beach, the Vedanta Center in Hollywood and the Electric Fountain at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica, the TV wrestler who styled himself as Gorgeous George, the slingshot known as a "Wham-O" and the codeine-laced cough medicine called Cheracol, all of which will resonate for readers of a certain age and background.

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