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JAMES ROBERT BAKER
Boy Wonder


click to enlarge

Futura, London, 1988
(price: 5.99; 470 pages)

dedication: For John


The blurb on the back:

Shark Trager wanted everything Hollywood had to offer - the fame, the fortune, the thrills, even the perfect California blonde. And one way or another he got - and lost - it all ...
Born in the back of a Chrysler at the Flying Wing Drive-In during a showing of the B-movie film noir
Gun Crazy, Shark Trager was arguably the quintessential Hollywood wunderkind producer of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Which means that he was probably the definitive narcissistic genius-as-monster of the entire movie industry, if not of the entire civilization, as well. Trager's controversial career (Sex Kill à Go-Go, Mondo Jet Set, etc), his obsession for heiress Kathy Petro, his outrageous (some might even say despicable) behaviour in both his public and private life, his immense popularity and equally immense vilification, his sudden filmably spectacular death, all epitomized the culture he did so much to enrich. Here is a man who accepted James Dean into his soul as a Christian must accept Jesus into his heart. Here is a man unscrupulous in his pursuit of Art; unprincipled in his pursuit of Love; untempered in his pursuit of Life. Here is Shark Trager as he is remembered by those who loved and loathed him most.


There are times when I feel that I ought to apologize for the title of this site. It was meant affectionately, but I do worry that some of those whose favourite books - or, even worse, whose own books - appear on these pages might be offended by the expression Trash.

And if so, I'm sorry: that's not what I meant. I was thinking Trash as in the aggressively non-highbrow populist art that's driven by its desire to entertain: the Ronettes and the Rubettes, The White Devil and The Werewolf of Paris, King Kong and King Kong Kirk. That kind of thing. Stuff that the late Lester Bangs would have recognized.

But if that's the field you're looking in, you have take a pretty broad sweep with a pretty broad brush. These books have been accumulated over a couple of decades of buying almost at random, or at least so it sometimes seems, in the hope that somewhere amidst the garbage there'll be something worth having. And obviously it works. (Otherwise I wouldn't carry on, would I?) So although there are included on these pages some of the very worst books that have ever been published, there are also some works of real quality and charm: Nosferatu, Storyboard, Blood Secrets - these are books worth spending some time seeking out, and books that have been unfairly neglected in the modern world.

And then you come to a book like Boy Wonder, and you kind of feel that the rest of the site has been created as a backdrop for this one work. Because this is Trash Fiction. This is as good as popular writing gets. Alongside, say, Perfume, The Secret History, maybe K-Pax, it's one of the few novels from the last couple of decades that could justifiably be called a classic.

The book is in the form of an oral history in which those who survive the events of the story tell us about the life and work of Gale 'Shark' Trager, a piece of white trash from Newport Beach, California who becomes a major Hollywood producer. Born in 1950 to a John Wayne-fixated father and brought up by a succession of women (my own favourite of whom gets sacked from Nixon's 1960 Presidential campaign for being too racist), Trager is given an 8mm camera for Christmas when he's 12 and never looks back. After an eventful time at film school, he emerges as a cross between Russ Meyer, Roger Corman and John Landis: he's a b-movie auteur who graduates to the big time, and eventually - in 1988 - to the Oscars ceremony itself.

The story, however, is almost impossible to reduce to a synopsis, and would certainly be meaningless if it were so reduced. It is the most wildly and successfully over-the-top book you could hope to come across: no excess is so great that it cannot be exceeded, no depth is too absurd that it cannot be plumbed.

On the one hand you have lovely little jokes: Trager is in love with a Californian airhead Kathy Petro, given that name simply so that her father can be a businessman owning a petro-chemical company called Petro-Chem. Or then there's a minor character, Nigel Blore, a British director responsible for the 1960 kitchen-sink classic The Hard Life, who's been struggling since the failure of Method To Her Modness in 1967. There are endless little bits like that, gleefully sharing a nod and a wink with real films, real people, making this a treasure trove of in-jokes and knowing references. If I had the time - and regrettably at the moment I don't - I'd be tempted to write an encyclopaedia dedicated to the detail.

And then on the other hand, there are huge, spectacular set-pieces, such as filming a redemptive sci-fi epic in war-torn Beirut, or a particularly unsavoury incident with a Hollywood actress and a donkey in a White House bedroom. Round about halfway through the book, you're already feeling drained, exhausted by the relentless roller-coaster of incident and excitement. And then it carries on. For another 250 pages. Part of the joy of the book is the bludgeoning refusal to pace the thing properly. It's almost impossible to sustain this level of action, but somehow Baker manages it.

Then again, on the third hand, there's the pleasure to be derived from the stupidly coincidental plotting. Not even Dickens himself would have dared depend so heavily or so repeatedly on such a pantheon of deus ex machina. (What is the plural of deus?) But it's the bravura audacity with which it's done that wins you over. It's as though Baker is standing there saying, 'See these loose ends? What I'm going to do now is tie them together.' There's no trick, no sleight of hand, just a magician asking to choose your card and then deliberately - in front of you - bending the corner over before returning it to the pack.

I think I'm all out of hands now, but there's more (as Jimmy Cricket used to say). Shark Trager is a deeply unpleasant man - self-centred, neurotic, megalomaniac, he lacks any taste or morality whatsoever. And indeed so does everyone else in the book. Every last one of them. It's a parade of personality defects engaged in a shallower-than-thou competition.

And as the scummy suburban values of the 1950s come under fire from black culture and drugs in the '60s, as they finally fragment in the solipsistic '70s and then re-emerge triumphant and only semi-scathed in the right-wing conformity of the '80s, you realize that you're reading the Great American Novel. Because that mythical beast was never going to be found in the rarefied upper reaches of the literary Olympus: if it's truly going to encapsulate the reality of America then it's going to be rooting down in the netherworlds of film and rock & roll, the art forms that define the glories and follies of American culture.

In Fuel Injected Dreams James Robert Baker wrote perhaps the best rock & roll novel I've read. Here there's no 'perhaps' about it: this is without question the best Hollywood novel I've read. It's only a shame that the real Hollywood (if you'll pardon the contradiction in terms) would have never have the balls to make a movie of it. Mind you, it's probably just as well, 'cos they'd only fuck it up. The only man who could do it justice is Shark Trager himself.

As far as I'm aware this book is currently out of print in Britain. So you may have to work at this, but somehow you really, really need to lay your hands on a copy. It's brilliant.

James Robert Baker
James Robert Baker

  Incidentally it might just be the edition I've got of Bangs' collected writings, but there's a wonderful misquote in 'James Taylor Marked For Death', his legendary essay on The Troggs: 'Your socks are low and your hips are showing' is a great image but doesn't make quite as much sense as the original 'Your slacks are low and your hips are showing'. Depending, I suppose, on how you wear your socks.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 5/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
5/5


another edition

from the maker of...

Fuel Injected Dreams

Tim and Pete

visit James Robert Baker's website
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