I’ve always really enjoyed Joseph Kanon’s books, beginning with Los Alamos. He was a big wheel in publishing before becoming a novelist and he learned a thing or two about structure and pacing along the way. But Stardust, as you’d expect from the title, is almost more of a movie than it is a book. This is a little hard to describe, because it’s a very satisfying read. It doesn’t have that thinness you sometimes get with writers who do a lot of screen work, where the dialogue scrolls down the page and you don’t know what anybody looks like. Kanon does deliver a lot of dialogue and he’s great at it: “You know anything about jumpers?… They like it a little higher. Why not just go to the Roosevelt and jump off the roof? Four, five stories? You can — I mean, he did, he’s dead. But you could also just wake up in a cast somewhere.” “He did, he’s dead.” It is the way people talk. Or maybe, more precisely, the way people talked in movies in 1947. Because that’s the other way this book is like a movie: it’s about them.
We meet Ben Collier (born Kohler) as he’s boarding the train to Los Angeles. He’s recently demobilized from the Signal Corps where he served in Germany and his head is full of horrible memories. His brother Daniel, a film director, has just had a terrible fall and may not live. On the train are a group of actors and movie executives including a studio head for whom, coincidentally, Daniel worked. When Sol has a little heart episode, Ben helps him hide it from the nasty gossip columnist and from then on, all doors in Hollywood are open to him.
So here we are: postwar Hollywood, with a protagonist who can go anywhere. His German roots (his father was a German film director, half-Jewish, who died during the war) pave his way into the emigré colony. This stuff is great — Alma Mahler swanning in and out of parties, long chatty afternoons over coffee and sweets that reconstruct a Berlin konditorei beneath the palm trees. Kanon is fabulous on the manners and mannerisms, the formality, the strict wool suits: there’s a great funeral scene. And since Ben gets swept up into studio life, we also get wonderful on-the-lot color including a massive diorama of Japan constructed to stand in for the actual country when fighter pilots “flew” over it. More detailed and clearer, we’re told, than actual aerial footage.
And finally, we have this mysterious death of the brother. Who, by the way, had a very attractive wife. Ben gets suspicious, starts to turn over some rocks, finds some nasty stuff. Ultimately there are Communists and a creepy state Congressman who holds pre-HUAC hearings. I didn’t really follow the entire denouement — Kanon is a little too clipped and speedy at the end. But I cared less about who did what or why, than I did about the fabulous climactic scene on a sound stage with a gorgeous broad in a sequinned gown, carrying a gun that she knows how to shoot. It’s self-consciously cinematic, of course, but remains satisfying on the page. Quite a feat.