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Among vultures

The Hollywood Dodo A Novel Geoff Nicholson Simon & Schuster: 326 pp., $23

August 29, 2004|Carmela Ciuraru | Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of "Poems for America" and "Beat Poets."

At first glance, Hollywood -- with its preening film stars, stealth Botox injections and famously extravagant lifestyles -- has no apparent connection to the flightless, unsightly, long-gone dodo bird. Yet in his latest black comedy of a novel, British author Geoff Nicholson makes the dodo a symbol of the ruthlessness of Hollywood, where today's star is tomorrow's roadkill, ostracized and extinct.

The book's central characters converge in the unlikeliest ways. There is William Draper, a 17th century student at Oxford who has grown "strongly, incomprehensibly attached" to the dodo and vows to "fill the world with dodos"; Rick McCartney, a "tan, buff" screenwriter determined to make a film about the dodo; and Dr. Henry Cadwallader, a widowed London doctor who accompanies his bratty aspiring-actress daughter, Dorothy, to present-day Los Angeles.

Draper's narrative, which is interspersed throughout, turns out to be a fictional manuscript-in-progress, called "The Restoration of the Dodo." It is discovered (and stolen) by McCartney, who wants to use it for his screenplay. He reads with fascination of the curious bird's hold on Draper: "The dodo looks ... out of joint, and in itself misconstructed, as though made out of the left over parts from other, more elegant birds.... But William finds this very inelegance appealing too, and brave and noble in its way. He responds to something in the bird's ruffled demeanor, in its melancholy, its earthbound plight."

McCartney, whose business card reads "Auteur of the Future," meets Henry and Dorothy on a flight to Los Angeles; they meet again when the father calls for advice on how his daughter can succeed in Hollywood. It isn't long before Henry and Dorothy are pulled into McCartney's filmmaking ambitions, with disastrous consequences.

As the story shifts back and forth from the 17th century to the present, the characters' ambitions intensify, yielding startling results: Guileless, middle-aged, overweight Henry stumbles into a lusty affair with an actress-turned-real estate agent and finds himself courted by casting agents. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Dorothy, after being told she has "the kind of broad, wholesome English face the camera is never going to love," believes that if she goes on a crash diet, gets a haircut, buys a tooth whitener and tools around town in a luxury convertible, she'll take Hollywood by storm.

The novel's bizarre elements -- porn, real estate, Hollywood, past-lives therapy and the dodo -- intersect surprisingly well in what becomes a scathing commentary on fame, corruption, superficiality and hubris. Nicholson's ideas aren't exactly original. Yet his insights into "the biz" are dead-on. When McCartney pitches his dodo movie project, clueless executives ask, "Who are we rooting for here?" and "Is there a part for Jennifer Lopez?"

Though the plot becomes exceedingly complicated, rather silly and perilously close to self-parody, the message of this sharp satire stays firmly intact: No matter how many Hollywood stars and wannabes are ruined by the industry, there's always another dodo waiting for a lucky break. *

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