A review of Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California by Matthew Specktor, Tin House, 300 pages (July 2021)
Always Crashing in the Same Car is an exuberantly affectionate stroke of self-schadenfreude that defies category, and yet is weirdly categorial in its defiance. It’s a memoir of desultory personal loss disguised as an inquiry into the rise and fall of a 1970s Hollywood elite and its sensibilities. Its author, Matthew Specktor, novelist and a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, is haunted by what he has sort-of/kind-of achieved: minor notoriety and major obscurity in Tinseltown. Specktor relates tales of eight west-coast writers, musicians, directors, and screenwriters, who managed to wring latter-day decline out of youthful success: a night sky of aborted careers, burst egos, sabotaged comebacks—a universe of fizzled stars. Specktor didn’t have their success/decline but dearly wishes he had.
This conundrum—of the author looking into himself by looking outside—is the gist of the book. Specktor’s a hanger-on, a peripheral observer, an extra, who, born in LA, self-exiled and then returned. The son of a distant, prosperous talent-agent father and a failed scriptwriting mother (an abusive alcoholic and model lit-lover with whom he recalls several nasty exchanges), he is himself in dire straits. He’s divorced, sees his daughter on occasion, and worries more than he writes, though he is forever trying to compose stuff that might sell. (This is a strange conceit: The writer who complains that he’s having a helluva time writing a book as he writes a helluva good book.)
Spektor passes his days reading semi-obscure novels (like Ross MacDonald’s The Goodbye Look and Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling) and watching under-loved movies (like The King of Marvin Gardens and Puzzle of a Downfall Child)—pan-flashes from the 1960s and 1970s, whose creators’ lives embody his own, imaginatively speaking, because he views them as graders who paved the road to renown. He resembles a parasitoid wasp that lays eggs in host insects, which then hatch and feed on the host’s body.
His eight subjects are mostly recognizable. He begins anecdotally with the gin-soaked collapse of Hollywood rewrite man, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the beloved infidel, who never got a screen credit for the B-movies he labored over between 1936 and 1940. Then, the main events: two 1970s female screenwriters, Carole Eastman, known for Five Easy Pieces, and Eleanor Perry, known for Diary of a Mad Housewife (a symbolic tale of women trapped in the motion-picture system); the wunderkind Thomas McGuane, whose cult novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade, is a fan favorite in lit and film versions; the actress Tuesday Weld, an underused child/blonde naïf who, for Specktor, was a quietly insolent feminist; the mordantly unpleasant singer-songwriter Warren Zevon; a couple directors from the post-1960s generation, the pop-icon Hal Ashby, Oscar-nominated for Coming Home, Harold and Maude, Being There, and the mercurial Michael Cimino, lauded for The Deer Hunter and excoriated for his $100 million disaster, Heaven’s Gate (it’s not that bad); and last, the acidic essayist and mosaical novelist, Renata Adler, whose viperishness Specktor especially admires.
He sky-highs a whole lot of fireworks—and, should it not be obvious, with eight supporting actors this 378-page pulsing biographical portrait of LA cultural warriors has only so much space for Specktor himself. But he is in his book—a brooding dance through West Hollywood, puddle-wet with legend. In this movie/pop-music terrain (typewriters a-clacking), he’s imbued with its cultural history. That history is so infectious, like poison oak, that he is constantly itching the rash of Who Am I in LaLa Land? Or better yet, who am I if I have not yet become me?
Opening his narrative in 2007, he’s divorced and rents an apartment close to his daughter. He squats across the street from the place where Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44. It’s like living on the tour-bus stop where O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Macabre landmarks are around every corner and the lore punctuates his self-consciousness. Is he next? He moves to an apartment with a Murphy bed that folds down from the wall, a floor below a woman who partnered with Warren Zevon for two years, though her recollections are bizarrely uneventful. Specktor borrows all her Zevon records and gets hooked.
Much of what he does is to ghost the avenues and curtained interiors where his heroes’ memories play in his mind like precursors of what’s happened or is happening to him:
I hadn’t experienced much success in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter—I’d written things, none of them published or produced—but I didn’t blame anyone else for it. I blamed myself, restless memory, restless mind, whatever it was in me that couldn’t get comfortable where I was, that insisted, against both common sense and evidence, that I’d be happier somewhere else, once the future (what future?) had conferred recognition upon me.
Aside from such generalities of feeling, we learn little concrete about the author. In the 1980s, Specktor was a secretary to Robert De Niro, whom he identifies by movie roles, not by name. He seems to toil on screenplays he can’t sell, though their existence feels like more wish than fulfillment. He pines for his daughter, still fights with his (dead) mother in unresolvable spats, and shows us what a lousy date and boyfriend he is—apparently, his fiascos with women are due to a melancholic fixation on the red dwarfs and white giants in the movie/music/literary industries whom he does and doesn’t want to be like.
Why select Hollywood and its west-coast culture as his topic and theme? It’s his ’hood, where he came of age, romantically screen-addled. That fog of romance suggests why he holds the movies so responsible for what he calls our society’s “ethical failures.” This, I fear, is a classic brew of stale blame, which he never works out in this semi-polemic other than to cite the exploitative degeneracy of the star system, reviving Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.
Specktor mulls over the careers of these eight remembered and forgotten writers and artists as if he were their defense attorney. In the chapter on Tuesday Weld, titled “Quasimodo Plays Herself,” he writes that Weld acted with a stinging self-control, a star who did not deserve Play It As It Lays, the box-office flop based on Joan Didion’s novel. (How Specktor’s eyes adore Weld in that film: “her skin the roseate pink of a glacier kissed by dawn.”) Though typecast as an oversexed ingenue and starlet, she was intelligent, canny, and honest to a fault. One night on The Dick Cavett Show, sitting between the bloviating Milton Berle and the parade-float Dinah Shore, she said of Orson Welles: “I’ve never met an actor—an older actor—who was happy with himself, and his life.” She turned down the role of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s film. “I don’t need to play Lolita,” she said. “I am Lolita.”
Eventually, Weld is reinscribed to the “whatever happened to” meme that now runs at the bottom of the basest click-based websites: Classic Actresses Faces, Then and Now. This disrupts Specktor’s sense of aesthetic fairness. His subjects kept working, kept auditioning for roles, kept plotting returns, kept manifesting interior strength—all of which guaranteed a page-six mention in the public realm, if that. Their initial notoriety did not make them hapless has-beens of their one-time glory (think Sylvester Stallone); instead they ventured into new identities (think Cat Stevens) and left their trademarks in the lurch.
We have an amateurish habit of nattering at an actor’s or a writer’s or a director’s so-called decline, as we declare their later work not up to snuff. As if we know what “snuff” is. Are, say, any of Joni Mitchell’s records after Blue “less than” Blue. Why? Because the renown garnered by Blue, whether artistic or commercial—like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or Toni Morrison’s Beloved—is so overwrought that we can do nothing but scream “genius” and “revolutionary” since we have no clue how they did it.
For Weld, Specktor contends that she grokked how “to perform the crooked dance of publicity” better than most, during the testosterone-fueled era of the Hollywood Renaissance, roughly from In Cold Blood to E.T.. She was “guarded and open, defended without ever quite being defensive.” She mastered and undercut the pulls of self-as-star and self-as-screen-role:
A director assembles films. A writer composes them. But an actor, whose whole life can feel like an exercise in imposter syndrome—there is the exhaustion of suspecting that you might be a fraud, which any creative person feels, and then there is the need to enact a performance of authenticity with your entire body before you can even let this possibility have its due—knows this quarrel, I would imagine, better than anyone.
So, to the arc of rise, topple, and fall we can add Specktor’s true theme: Am I nothing but a fraud?—the question on every celluloid mind. From here we trace the journey of American artists who are judged less for their innovation and deconstructive contrariness and more (a lot more) for their commerciality. Entangling this point further, his often-mesmerizing meditation yellow-bricks the path from the novel or the stage drama to the treatment or script to the supporting and leading actors who embody the characters and to the main and assistant directors who wedge the whole into what is hardly, in the end, literary, despite how much filmmakers wish it were.
Always Crashing lacks filmic analysis, an LA grammar of motives, as it were. Rather, Specktor has made these eight figures of interest interesting because he relates them to his memoiristic struggle. The eight serve his cause. Not as writerly craftsmen, masterful directors, dramatic mentors, but as benched outsiders, game-activated to illustrate a psychology. A psychology of what? Of the artist’s psychobiography up to and beyond the work—their career accomplishments, their reception history, and the meaningless tales of sexual innuendo and studio brawls and—the most important ingredient—weekly relevance. Do I still matter today as I did yesterday? Specktor’s assessment of these personalities arises because he feels that he, too, should have had some celebrity and this—as flimsy as it sounds—is the sorrowful and decisive honesty that drives the book.
Specktor is working in a subgenre we might call the “failure memoir” or “the memoir of decline,” and its subspecies, “the submission memoir”—that is, I caved, I quit fighting, I survived … and I confess. Failure signals that anyone can fall in one’s first, second, or third act; decline or submission is more apt—what else follows the slow or sudden ascent to grand acclaim but certain diminishment? How many rock ’n’ roll documentaries and VH1 paeans to Divas feature the rise (a string of hit records), the fall (drugs and/or booze and/or scandal), and, if they don’t die, resurrection at Malibu Rehab? Too late for the tragic Whitney Houston and Kurt Cobain but just in time for the revivified Eric Clapton and Demi Lovato.
The tradition of the “failure memoir” is long and thin. The American shipwreck washes ashore with Fitzgerald and his brilliant essay, “The Crack-Up” (1936), which adumbrated and predicted his fallowed career, his overconfidence, and his meager income, barely sufficient to keep the bipolar Zelda institutionally comfortable. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997) is perhaps the best of the lot. A lover of Lawrence’s novels and his far-flung travels, Dyer essays on the slow, clumsy, lazy, snail-crawl of histrionic noncommittal with which he tries to capture the Phoenix of British Lit, chasing his shadow around the globe.
David Denby’s American Sucker (2000) profiles the greed-is-good 1990s and its dot.com meltdown, during which the dumb-as-a-rock Denby kept buying stocks as they free-fell, losing his savings and learning, at last, that writers don’t play the markets. Then came Kate Bowler’s aptly titled, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018). Bowler, a professor at the Duke Divinity School and a cancer patient/survivor, realizes the misguidedness of believing she’s responsible for first (somehow) acquiring and then (miraculously) recovering from her near-terminal malady, among the most shameful, self-induced guilt trips with which the religious bully others and themselves. (I should also throw in Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2010 anti-feelgood attack on the New Age self-healing commerce, after her own journey with breast cancer, Smile or Die.)
What has Specktor failed at, had and lost, or, alas, not achieved? Very hard to say. The presumption that he matters? Literary worthiness? The riddle that what he loves doesn’t love him back? Leaving aside his previous output—a couple of novels and a book about a famous movie—Always Crashing is a long multi-genuflection that encapsulates his anxieties, whether about culture heroes or his own missteps. His “performance” of his intellect is his intellect—with a Kerouacian piston-revving style to match—one that coalesces in galloping speed and nimble insight, often with a thrilling moral cast:
Success makes nobody kinder. There was never any recognition, any award, any paycheck, any honorific or yacht or private plane or compensation that made a person more deserving or better than he or she was before receiving it. Because empathy is a product of lack, of yearning and suffering and absence, and of the recognition that you don’t, in fact, “deserve” any better than anyone else does, no matter what you’ve done or won or been awarded. If Frank [husband of the screenwriter Eleanor Perry] became a jerk inside the marriage, well, you go cash a check for seven figures and see if it makes you feel like a kinder, nobler human being. You may feel like you deserve it, but that’s just the money talking. Trust me, it is.
There’s a readability, a palpitation, a propulsion in the prose of Always Crashing. The troubled state of the author and his mugwumping approach to moviedom and stardom is animated by his torrid ruminations, his surveys of each artist’s neglected or unheralded work, their work-ethics and marriages and substance abuse and crashing egos as mirrored declines of Specktor’s artistic neglect.
What’s most striking is that the author wants us to value what he values for aesthetic reasons as well as to elicit sympathy for himself. Not because we see ourselves in his midlife funk but because he is trying to make amends for seeing too much of himself in others—the fatal LA sin: envy. His Terrence Malick-long confession is the means by which he discloses himself to himself through what he covets. He’s channel-swimming between uncovering his own story and seeking a similar story in the lives of those he admires—in, for example, the critic Renata Adler’s “weirdly revelatory” writing, unfairly mischaracterised as a one-dimensional sledgehammer by a small mob of her contemporaries.
How does Specktor relate to Adler? He treasures her chutzpah, speaks to her by phone like a groupie (feeling a nagging kinship with his bossy mother), and uses her to idolize what he’d like to have—the not-LA culture of a Manhattan exile and a “world of fine-tuned ethical skepticism.” In his mid-30s, he lived Joan Didion’s dichotomy:
There was the world of movies, and there was the one of books. There was Los Angeles, particularly of the 1970s and 1980s, the nation’s sunstruck, hedonic shadow capital—shapely of form but empty of substance—and there was New York. You know, that other place. The place where anyone serious, or so I’d been told, needed to go to contend.
What rosy horseshit! Manhattan as the only place where the truly serious must contend?
Yet still I’m impressed by Specktor’s odd equation: The failure to succeed is as bad as the fall or the decline from success. We don’t recognize that enough, that the endstory is as great and grandiose as the backstory. A cranky envoy, Specktor wishes he had ascended more so his fall or decline would have been commensurate with his rise. In this sense, he had to write a book about such slides—of his and his ilk—in order for the book to land after which he may enjoy the fadeaway that almost every author seeks, just once, to justify this cruel, unsung freelance life. Better the despair of the famously fallen than the despair of the never risen.
Such may be the artist’s existence in America—like a soldier’s lifelong service in the military where an intense amount of training prepares him for a battle he may never fight and whose lost engagement will mean he will never be tested, an unmanly fate. So much for the intrinsic reward of writing a fine, alluring, limbic-raw book. Which Matthew Specktor has accomplished more than he, wishing on a star, can know.