Bookmonger: Of writers and witch-hunts

The Great Pretenders – Laura Kalpakian

Berkley – 388 pp - $16

We hear the phrase “witch-hunt” being tossed around with regularity in some circles these days.

Bellingham author Laura Kalpakian takes on another tumultuous political period – the McCarthy era of red-baiting and anti-Communist hysteria – in her new novel, “The Great Pretenders.”

The beginning of this novel suggests that this will be a frothy romp through the lives of the Hollywood glitterati, but Kalpakian quickly moves beyond that to show us a range of stories behind the scenes.

The time is the 1950s and Hollywood has been hit hard by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attempts to purge Communism from the American landscape. Actors, producers, and writers are being blacklisted — not only have they been fired from their jobs, but some have been sentenced to prison, while others have fled the country.

Young Roxanne Granville doesn’t worry about that sort of thing. She is Hollywood royalty — the daughter of an acclaimed British actor and granddaughter of a Hollywood power couple — producers Leon and Julia Greene. (Leon is a political conservative who decries social ferment, labor unions, and the civil rights movement.)

Roxanne grew up in the Greenes’ home, surrounded by movie stars and a lavish lifestyle. But when Leon took up with an ambitious starlet, Julia left her husband and decamped to Paris with Roxanne.

But that’s back-story.

“The Great Pretenders” begins back in California at Julia’s funeral and the reading of the will.

Roxanne also has received a handsome inheritance, which frees her from having to find someone to marry. (“Marriage has little to recommend it,” she declares, “… other than a mortgage and the missionary position.”)

Now that she is back in Los Angeles, she decides to become a screenwriters’ agent. When her first job at a high-profile agency is marred by sexual harassment, she quits and goes out on her own.

Her early clients are inexperienced young writers, but she gets a break when she is given an excellent script written by a blacklisted writer who once worked for her grandfather, but now is struggling to survive.

When Roxanne uses one of her young writers as the front man and makes the sale, other blacklisted writers contact her, and she provides similar services for them.

But Roxanne has to be careful — if her duplicity is discovered, she too will be shunned by Hollywood.

And as if this behavior isn’t risky enough, she violates another major social taboo by falling in love with a black man. Terrence Dexter is a journalist who has been covering the civil rights movement for a black-owned Los Angeles newspaper.

Kalpakian, who is white, clearly has done her research, and this hybrid story of glamorous lives, forbidden love, and social inquiry is ambitious.

The thread dealing with the black experience, however, feels more recited than authentic – and ultimately is tinged by a kind of sunniness that doesn’t ring true.

“The Great Pretenders” does have entertainment value, but the social content that is woven in is uneven. Still, it cannily foreshadows issues we face today.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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