Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 July 13 • Wednesday

Speaking of John Milius, he's a major character in Zeroville, a great novel by Steve Erickson.

If you put Flicker, Being There and Forrest Gump in a blender you might end up with something like Zeroville. (Erickson first gave Zeroville life as a short story of the same name in McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Here's the first line, which I had a little trouble with. "On Vikar's shaved head is tattooed the right and left lobes of his brain." My problem was that I thought "is" should be "are". It took me a while to get past that.

Here's the whole first paragraph, which is important.

On Vikar's shaved head is tattooed the right and left loves of his brain. One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other's arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.

Not only is that the first paragraph, it's also the first chapter. The second chapter is two paragraphs. Chapter four is one sentence. Each chapter gets a large number above it, and they count up to 227, at which point they start to count down, zero being the final chapter. (This is one of Dexter's favorite books!)

Chapter 227 is one sentence: "Vikar doesn't know it, but everything now has been reset to zero".

Vikar was born Ike Jerome and grew up in Pennylvania, the son of a "Calvinist father who allowed in the house no books except the Bible, no magazines, newspapers, radio or the then new invention of television".

His father believes that God "had one hour of weakness for which He has spent eternity paying, and that was the moment He stopped Abraham from proving to Him his true faith and devotion. Children are the manifestation of the sin that soiled the world with pleasure's seed and the Bible teaches us that sanctification lies in the deliverance of children from this life and from the sin of their birth and existence".

Abraham's son was Isaac—Ike to you. Vikar/Ike's father also believes that "all righteous fathers would be Abraham again, to guide our God the Father's hand in His hour of weakness".

Vikar survives this childhood and later in life worships cinema after seeing his first movie, which happens to be Goldfinger and Erickson is typically witty about Vikar's reaction. "He was transfixed by the sight of a beautiful nude woman painted entirely gold; her body was discovered by the spy who seduced and thereby doomed her. It was difficult for Vikar to be certain just how bad the spy felt about this."

To make a long story short, Places in the Sun, the source of the Elizabeth Taylor-Montgomery Clift scene tattooed on Vikar's head becomes Vikar's ideal. Vicker is the family name of Elizabeth Taylor's character in the film. John Milius—called "Viking Man" in the book—refers to Vikar as "the vicar" which is also how some people used to refer to the VCR, an appropriate enough name as Vikar is something of a movie machine—not a cineaste but cineautistic, as Milius calls him. (Vikar also has VCR-like record and playback functions.)

He goes to the movies all the time, new and old. He sees Performance, The French Connection, Preminger's Laura (for the third time), Murmur of the Heart, Gilda, Disney's Pinocchio, The Battle of the Algiers (with Viking Man, who's seeing it for the sixth time), Dirty Harry (for which Viking Man is writing a sequel), an old forties movie called Criss Cross where Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo drive each other mad across what seems to Vikar a fantastical downtown Los Angeles with trolley cars that glide through the air.

Vikar arrives in Hollywood just in time for the Manson family murders and gets a job as a set designer at one of the major film studios, where he meets Milius and Dorothy Langer, an editor who worked without credit on Places in the Sun.

One of the highlights of the book is the scene, taking up chapters 92–95, where Langer analyzes the construction of Places in the Sun for Vikar's benefit.

Montgomery Clift's eye dissolves into a shot of the rowboat and its passengers in the distance, a faraway glint of light on the dark lake that becomes a glint in Clift's eye before his face fades altogether. "Like with the close-ups, this picture did things with dissolves no one had seen, not in Hollywood pictures anyway. You had two images dissolving at the same time, one coming in and one going out. There have to be more dissolves in this picture than anything since Murnau."

There's a lot of great writing about movies, and since the movies aren't always identified by name, it can be fun to figure out what Vikar is seeing from what he thinks about them.

(Erickson is also a film critic but I think this novel is the only thing I've ever read by him.)

When Milius is trying to persuade Vikar to come to Spain to edit his movie, and Vikar says he doesn't want to leave Hollywood, Milius replies:

"Don't you understand? This is Hollywood."

"What do you mean?"

"This godforsaken stretch of Gibraltar. The cutting room in Madrid. Paris, Bombay, Tokyo, fucking Norway, wherever—it's all Hollywood, everywhere is Hollywood, the only place on the planet that's not Hollywood anymore is Hollywood. You got a passport?"

Some of the best insights come late in the book, from Vikar's adopted teenage daugter, Zazi. She's the one who articulates the powerful differences between watching a movie by yourself at home and watching it in a theatre with other people.

"I mean, five hundred or a thousand people or however many it is in a theater—what are they going to do with a movie like that? There's too much common sense floating around the room, and what you have to do with a movie like that is give up your common sense, which is easier to do when it's just you alone. … That movie's like a ghost. Watch it alone and you become the thing or person it haunts."

Zazi also a brilliant take on the ending of Casablanca.

"But it was all pretty cool—except for this one thing."


"'Someday you'll understand that.'"


"He says, "Someday you'll understand that.' There at the end, when the Bogart guy is telling her why she can't stay with him, he gives this big speech about how their problems aren't worth beans and they have to do what's right and her place is with her husband because he's fighting the Nazis and it's important—and then he says, 'Someday you'll understand that'…and that was kind of infuriating, if you want to know the truth. Because if you want to know the truth, she's the one who's understood it all along. It's why she left him to begin with, why she's spent the whole movie trying to explain it to him, trying to get him to understand—and now he's telling her?"

I waited with trepidation for Vikar to happen upon Bigger Than Life, in which a drug-addled and psychotic James Mason attempts to murder his own young son after coming to believe that God was wrong to stop Abraham. This never happens, though. Perhaps it would overwhelm the book or Vikar or both.

Vikar understands almost nothing but movies—and about movies he's a little confused, thinking that Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist are comedies—but responds to punk rock as well, liking "I Wanna Be Your Dog" but nothing else he hears on the radio.

Later he finds himself in New York City where he becomes known as a dangerous slamdancer to the crowd at CBGB's in the 1970s. (Vikar brings a date there to slamdance, just as Travis Bickle brings Betsy to a porn movie in Times Square.)

It's a delightful book. I didn't want it to end. The actual ending is not as strong as I wanted it to be, side-stepping into an enigmatic mysticism that, to be fair, was regularly foreshadowed throughout the novel.