"For far too long, Jay Neugeboren has been known as a writer’s writer and as the nurturing teacher of future writers,” Sanford Pinsker wrote in the Forward about one of Neugeboren’s earlier books. “It is high time for a wider audience.”
Neugeboren, in fact, has written 19 books, including novels (“The Stolen Jew”), nonfiction (“Transforming Madness”) and collections of essays and short stories. His latest novel, “The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company” (Texas Tech University Press, $24.95), is a short but exceedingly rich and accomplished yarn that offers yet another opportunity for readers to find out for themselves why he is so highly regarded among his fellow writers.
“I could make a story out of anything back then — a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall — and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about — one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures,” muses the protagonist of Neugeboren’s new novel, an androgynous young man named Joey who grows up in the infant motion picture industry during the opening years of the 20th century.
The story begins on a cold winter’s day in New Jersey, where Joey’s father and uncles are cranking out short films, but Hollywood is beckoning. “Everyone else is out there already,” observes Joe’s Uncle Karl. “Griffith’s making features he’s gonna charge two bucks a seat for — two bucks, can you believe it? — and I’m still pissing my life away on these two-reelers. In California, we can make movies every day of the year without freezing our tushes off.”
The catch-as-catch-can mode of movie-making that characterizes the Davidoff family business is more than slightly surrealistic, but their real life is even stranger. The fate that befalls Joey’s father and mother, for example, is worthy of “The Perils of Pauline,” although the author manages to leave enough room in the story for us to keep wondering about their ultimate fate.
Joey himself is accustomed to playing both male and female roles in front of the camera, and the ambiguity of his sexual identity seeps into the rest of his life. “It never ceases to amuse me, Joey,” says his Uncle Ben, “how ordinary you can look most of the time, even when you’re in costume and makeup and I’m photographing you, and how extraordinary you look on the film itself.” Still, Joey’s ability to pass as a female turns out to be a crucial skill when the woman he loves murders her husband and asks Joey to spirit her children to safety by posing as their mother. “ALONE WITH HER SECRET” is the silent-movie dialogue card that Joey imagines at one particularly treacherous but also deeply ironic moment.
With a fondness for puns and a storyteller’s practiced sleight-of-hand, Neugeboren shows us how movie magic actually works. Joey’s cousin, a stunt man named Izzie, pulls off a seemingly unsurvivable biplane crash into a river for the cameras of D.W. Griffith, and Joey is convinced that his cousin must be fatally pinned under the wreckage at the bottom. Then Izzie pops to the surface. “Hey Griff, you know what you should do?” he calls to the famous director. “You should go fly a kike.”
The author casts a number of famous Hollywood figures in cameo roles, including Lillian Gish and Eric von Stroheim, and he makes passing reference to the future moguls who pioneered the movie business: “Mister Zukor and Mister Laemmle, Mister Loew and Mister Fox.” The woman who figures most importantly in Joey’s young life, Gloria, recalls working as a ticket-taker at Schenck’s amusement park in New Jersey: “[H]e used to cop a feel whenever he could. That was before he married what’s-her-name —” And Joey provides the missing name: Norma Talmadge.
Neugeboren also works magic in the erotic encounters that he contrives between Joey and various men and women, including, for example, a fellow “usherette” at a movie house where he briefly finds work. “We can play Houdini,” she says at one heated moment. “That’s when you get to hide inside my magic box and disappear.” Says another woman who knows all of Joey’s secrets: “Ah, you’re wonderful, Joey, you and all the cockeyed stories you got inside that head of yours,” which is perhaps the best way to describe the act of conjuring that this enchanting little novel represents.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.