Those familiar with Tim Blake Nelson's work in Coen brothers films, the Watchmen series, or last year's Old Henry, will immediately understand that this novel's depictions of Hollywood machinations are of a higher caliber than those in any other literary work that's attempted to depict that world. City of Blows abounds in the economy and fluidity that accompanies true authority—seen in this description of a producer: “One of the biggest pricks in LA. But he gets his movies made. Directors rarely work for him twice.” What's less expected is Nelson’s investigation of the relationship between insecurity and toxicity, seen in Weinstein-esque predators but also applicable to masculinity at large. The psychological motivations and character examinations develop City of Blows from a roman à clef to a work far more universal.
Just before Laurel he made the hairpin left across the westbound lane on Sunset to reach his hotel. He eased by the tented valet station up the short driveway to the garage, where one of the same two harried attendants who’d been working the impossibly cramped area for decades took his car. He passed a bickering couple seated on the low bench facing the street and made his way up the dimly lit stairs to the lobby to retrieve his room key.
Turning toward the elevator, he considered having a Cognac in the sunken expanse that stretched away down a few descending steps to the left of reception. In a far corner he saw an older Australian actor named Nigel Gleeson, who had starred in Noah Mendelson’s last film, sitting alone behind a high-shouldered bottle, his nose in a hardback. David moved past the low tables and overstuffed couches on which sat the usual complement of slender, hip men and lithe women in varying states of dishabille. The room glowed from small table lamps and wall sconces, all fitted with small Edison bulbs at the minimum setting on their squeezers. Three or four dozen ofrenda candles flickered from every available surface.
“Hey, Nigel,” David said. “What are you reading?”The Australian looked up.
“David! My God. I was hiding back here. I couldn’t stand it up in my room—too much splendid isolation.”
“Should I go?”
“No! I’d talk to you any day! You’re only twenty years younger than I am, so we’ll actually have something to say to each another.”
“Walking back here I was thinking youth has its advantages.”
“Well, I’m having a rest from that. At least for tonight. You want a sip of this? I can get another glass. I’m not going to finish it. Well, I was, but shouldn’t, so you’ll be doing me a favor.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Oh, some California rubbish. Decent enough though.” He hailed a young waiter in the customary white shirt and black shawl-collared vest. “Could you just bring an extra glass here for my friend? Thanks so much. Sorry to be a bother.” He turned back to David. “So how’s our friend Mr. Mendelson? He out here as well?”
“No, happily back in Brooklyn.”
“Tell him he’s got to put us in his next movie together. Damn, I had a good time with him. I tell you though, I’d like to be in one of your movies.”
“That would be incredible.”
“Capos was absolutely harrowing.”“Thanks.”
“And you? What are you up to out here? Acting?
“No, writing and directing, but just for a series of meetings. I was supposed to leave today.”
“Mate, that’s my bloody life, may it never abate. It’s gotten to the point now where I leave my departures open-ended. I just take the cash and have my manager book the flights, because frankly they just won’t let you go.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”“It’s a bloody great thing!”
The waiter appeared with David’s glass.
“Thanks for that,” Nigel said, looking up. “You want something to nibble on, David? On me.”
“No thanks. I just came from a big dinner.”
“Of course you did.” He looked once more to the waiter. “That’ll be it for now, with any luck, thanks so much.”
“Just let me know if you need anything else, Mr. Gleeson. Oh, and your wine was covered by Mr. Abelson.”
“What? Is Fred here?”“Yes. Outside.”
“Oh, that’s lovely of him. Tell him thanks, and that I hope he’ll stop by on his way out.”
“I’m with UCM too, and Fred never buys my wine,” David remarked with feigned umbrage once the waiter had departed.
“Win an Oscar. Everything changes.”“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“That’s the thing about this place,” Nigel said as he gave David a healthy pour. “It’s so relentlessly, fucking interminably, diabolically seductive. Obvious thing to say, right? But even before my success. We’re treated ludi- crously well, staying in these hotels, where”—he gestured expansively— “there’s beauty all around us all the time, our needs are catered to, at least when there’s the work. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’re so far away— me from Sydney, you from New York—we’ve none of the hassles of our actual lives. Even the bloody time differences create space for us. Honestly, just look at this place. It’s unreal, down to the twinkling lights. And I’m sitting back here reading Bulgakov with a bottle of wine my agent just paid for, though I’ve got literally piles of per diem cash upstairs just as pocket money for my seven-figure job. How did it bleeding happen?”
“Yeah … that seven-figure part. Not exactly my reality. Certainly not as an actor, and come to think of it not as a writer/director either. Not even close.”
“Like I said, that Oscar, mate.”
“I’ll get right on it.”
“Or try concentrating on one or the other. Be an actor or a writer or a director! Jesus, not all three! Are you mad? But seriously, you know what else it is about this place? What turned it around for me?
“Again, not exactly an original thought, but you’ve got to give me credit for boiling it down to a simple aphorism.”
“Everything in Los Angeles, and I mean every interaction, is business. Meaning every bloody thing you do, every place you go, every person you meet, every decision you make. Absolutely no exceptions. Business.”
“You’re out in public to have a taco, no matter where it is, everyone goes everywhere, someone can see you and offer you a job. I’ve heard it before.”“Yes, of course you have, so sure, start with that. But it happens mostly without us even knowing it. I’ve been out one night, and my agent’s rung up the next day with an offer because the director or producer had been at the same restaurant. Never came over to say hi or introduce him or herself, but just saw me and boom, I clicked for a role. But that’s the obvious stuff. Go deeper. That waiter who brought your glass and told me about Fred getting the wine. He’s quite probably a writer or an actor or a director already. Aspiring, I mean. All of them are. That’s why they’re out here. He’s twenty— what?—five now, but by the time he’s thirty-five he’s going to be on with life and hopefully doing what he really wants to do. Is he the next Noah Mendelson? David Levit? Charlie Gold?”
“I don’t see him as Charlie. No one is Charlie.”
“Who the fuck knows? And I’m not stopping there. He’s got friends, and guess what they all talk about when they get together? Who they fucking waited on in their humiliating fucking jobs serving the toffs. Who’s nice and who’s a prick. Who tips and who doesn’t. Who looked like shite and who perfectly spiffy. So you better bloody well know: my interaction with him?”
“You bet your ass.”
“Pretty cynical, Nigel. And exhausting.”
“Being nice is cynical? I find it bloody invigorating. And look at us here. In a minute Fred Abelson, one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, who just bought us our wine—”
“Bought you our wine.”
“By virtue of this interaction, the one between you and me, that you came over for a confab and I obliged, he bought both of our wines.”
“So, this too is a business interaction between you and me?”
“Of course it bloody is, David. I just told you I’d be in one of your films. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love the work, I love the life, I love the pursuit. And presumably you do too, or choose something else to do, because the bloody bullshit we also put up with, particularly early on when we’re being rejected relentlessly? It ain’t worth it, mate.”
“It certainly isn’t.”
“So, Fred’s going to come over here, and because you stopped by to have a drink with me, and you’re looking successful there in your boots and black jeans and snazzy blazer—what is that? Paul Smith?”
“Your Paul Smith blazer. And he sees you’re with good old me, and I’m with good old you, he’s going to think better of both of us. Two of his clients out quaffing at the bloody Chateau. He’ll talk about it in the staff meeting tomorrow—who’s your main guy there?”
“Howard’s a cunt. But he’ll mention to everyone that he saw you with me last night, which’ll make Howard happy, and Howard will push just that little extra for you with the studios tomorrow, and on it bloody goes.” “Is that actually why you’re down here? Like some kind of a Venus flytrap waiting for us bugs to land on you?”
“Fuck off. Good one though. I’m down here because I love being down here. And why—and here’s the point—I’m well dressed wherever I go and whatever I do, and why I’m unfailingly nice and gracious to everyone. It’s also why, as I was describing, I tend to have more work offered to me than I have time for.”
“There’s also the fact that you’re one of the most talented actors in the world.”
“What a bleeding crock. If you think we’re where we are just because of talent, you’re fooling yourself. It’s the smallest part of it. Loads of people have talent. Did you go to drama school?”
“I went to NIDA in Sydney. And were you one of the top actors in your class?”
“Absolutely not. Considered the weakest by everyone.”“Not so different than me.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to, because it’s true. I mean, look, the truth? I was fine, but I could name half a dozen as good or better—and not subjectively, but objectively better in terms of whatever it is you think makes an actor: transformation, emotional honesty, movement, clarity with text, vocal range, imagination—you name it in whatever order. A few of them are still working, most of them aren’t.”
“So, you schmoozed your way to the top?”
“I haven’t schmoozed for a moment in my life actually, and if that’s what you think I mean, you haven’t heard a bloody word I’ve uttered. It comes down to understanding that you need to be a decent, reliable bloke wherever you go and whatever you do. Does that make me a schmoozer or some sort of poncy fraud the way the word implies? You be the judge. Like your man Lincoln said: ‘charity to all and malice toward none.’ And that, as much as whatever talent I’ve got, is why I go from job to job to job, and eventually I won the coveted statue that led to the sweet taste of free Cabernet on your tongue.”
The smugness aside, David couldn’t disagree with the essential premise as to how the business operated in Los Angeles, which furnished many of the animating reasons for Charlotte and him remaining in New York.
“Forgetting that I actually prefer working in theater,” Charlotte said, “I don’t want every time I go out to have to be worrying about what I’m wearing or how my makeup looks. Actresses have no choice out there. And what’s even more irritating is that women in that sort of predicament end up look- ing at each other even more than they do already. I don’t want any part of it. And I don’t want to have to perk myself up if I’m in a bad mood so I don’t seem down or bitter or unsuccessful. Better to be here—so long as we don’t live on the Upper East Side or in SoHo or Tribeca—and be fucking invisible.”
Nigel Gleeson could also, David knew, deploy his strategy because he came by his charm honestly. David didn’t have such permeated affability.
“And by the way, David,” Nigel asked, “what’s the bloody downside of being stubbornly gracious and dressing well?”
As if on cue, a smiling Fred Abelson and a woman David presumed to be his wife appeared before them.
“Fred! You bought our wine! If I’d known, there was a Barolo at twice the price! Don’t encourage us!” Nigel exclaimed with a grin David could no longer entirely trust.
“You should be encouraged!” exclaimed the nattily dressed agent. “Hello, David! What do we have you in town for?”
“I’ve been meeting with Jacob Rosenthal.”
“Oh, right. Howard Garner was mentioning that. Jacob’s tough, but I respect the hell out of him. Everyone does. What’s that project again?”
“Yes. It’s all coming back. Your adaptation?” “No. Something Howard brought me.”
“Good for him,” said the agent. “Anything in it for Nigel?”“Jesus, Fred! Shameless!” laughed Nigel.
“Doesn’t every film have a part for Nigel?” queried David, grinning as he realized Nigel’s theory was being proven now quite tangibly right before their eyes, and he was playing the game.
“Well played, David!” said Nigel with a wink.
“Is that the Rex Patterson novel?” asked the woman with Fred.“It is,” said David.
“That’s quite a book.”
It relieved David to observe that she was in her mid-fifties.
“I’m sorry, David,” said Fred, “you’ve never met my wife, Jane. Jane, David Levit, one of our clients. Acts, writes, and directs.”
David rose to shake her hand.“Nice to meet you.”
“Jane is a writer,” said Fred. “Not screenplays, but a real writer who tolerates having a movie-business husband. We’re spending our first year with no kids in the house, and we were sitting over there rejoicing and weeping simultaneously.”
“You probably didn’t know this, David,” said Nigel, “but Fred is one of the normal ones. Actually stayed married, raised a family with his first and only beautiful wife, who stands there before you, the whole bit.”
“You two enjoy yourselves,” said Fred, taking Jane’s arm. “And the tab will remain open, Nigel, if you want that Barolo.”
“I think the expense account is safe, Fred, but thanks. You’re a legend. Truly.”
“I’ll speak with you in the morning. Two projects came in.”“You mean I might not be headed home next month?”
“Not unless you want to!” said the agent. “Take care, David. Good luck with Coal. I assume you’ve been in touch with our below-the-line guys?”
“I will be.”
“And let me know if you need any help with casting or the deal or anything.”
“I will,” said David, knowing Brad Shlansky also to be a client, and wondering if Fred would or even could exert any pressure on Paul Aiello. “So, I’ve got to ask,” David said to Nigel after the agent and his wife had left. “How long have you actually been here?”
“You ready? In the US, mind you. Going on fourteen months. Was scheduled for three.”
“Started out on a Marvel movie, which was twelve weeks in Atlanta. Then went to North Carolina for a month and a half on a very weird thriller for Screen Gems, then back to Atlanta for an HBO thing, and now here for this one. A bit of time between each.”
“And the one here is what?”
“A studio comedy. Playing a mean rich dad to a girl following her heart with a rudderless ne’er-do-well who ends up designing an app that sells for tens of millions, so the dad gets his. Useless fluff, but couldn’t say no when they backed up the Brinks truck. Nearly all my scenes shoot on the stage at Paramount, so I don’t even have to get on a highway or go over the hill, which is nice. And mostly three-day weeks. Lots of time off to read and chase the Sheilas. Ends in a month, then who knows? There’s the bloody virus they say might gum up air travel, but I don’t believe a word of it. And anyway, it seems like from what Fred said there’ll be another vine to catch hold of. Anything to avoid real life, right!”
David shook his head, incredulous.
“Don’t be jealous, mate. Doesn’t become you.”
“Come to think of it, I’d miss my wife and daughters.”
“My kids, yes, I do miss them, but they’re obviously grown, so even when I’m in Sydney we mostly speak on the phone. And as for my wives—I had three of those—it’s best not to see them. They’ve taken too much of my money. Tends to breed resentment.”
David rose.“You off, then?”
“I’ve got an early-morning phone call to New York.”“Sounds ominous.”
“Have you ever been sued?”
“Didn’t I just say I get along with people? Well, except those wives.”“Good night, Nigel. And thanks for the wine.”
“It was Fred’s pleasure.”
Under the Chateau’s use-softened sheets, he shuddered imagining what had been cleaned from them over the years, or from the walls and carpets for that matter. Yet he appreciated the refusal to mask the dingier, more sordid aspects of the hotel’s history: Howard Hughes’s seclusion, John Belushi’s death, Fitzgerald’s heart attack, Nicholas Ray bedding an underage Natalie Wood, the Jean Harlow affair, and more recent tales of overdoses, fifty-thousand-dollar room service bills from twenty-something stars, and every manner of assignation and assault.
He considered the life of Nigel Gleeson, devoid, it seemed, of all the complications that riddled his own: sharp, needy daughters, a talented but tirelessly demanding wife he still loved, his own acting, writing, and directing aspirations and the challenges associated with each. And now the threat of a lawsuit that could stymie it all, including his ability to support his family. Nigel, with his performed charm, could relish the always replenishing reality of an actor going from offer to offer, utterly content with its unassailable and extremely remunerative simplicity. But did he want to be Nigel, thrice divorced, cosseted and solitary inside a life that seemed to resist any sense of home? Surely not. In fact, the very prospect felt unrewarding in its way.
He woke twice in the night, once to piss and another to take aspirin. Each time, a few pages from the James Baldwin essays he’d brought along as research for Coal, and he was blissfully out.