September 14, 2006
Michael Tolkin takes on L.A. excess, family dysfunction and private-school politics in sequel to his
Hate the game, love 'The Player'
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"And that's what my novel is about. That's what I wrote. That's why I wrote it. Because I was thinking of all these things, and I wanted to -- express that." But tell us, Michael: What do you really think?
As my head was reeling from Tolkin's searing exegesis, I, too, realized what the "Return of the Player" is about -- getting one's panic under control by becoming the master of your own fate and taking responsibility for being connected to your family. As good a recipe for living in the modern world as any, because if you can do that, you can feel much better about the world and your place in it.
Griffin Mill is 52, and he is panicked, as many of us are, because he works for a studio that he will never run; his family are all alienated -- everyone hiding out in his or her own private space; and the world itself is out of control. His only solution is to attempt to create a happy ending out of a potential tragedy. As Tolkin explained, the other key to understanding "The Return of The Player" is the Edith Wharton quote that prefaces the novel that "Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending."
This, too, is Tolkin's mission. "The Return of the Player" is filled with improbable plot turns, leaps of faith, leaps of folly, scenes and speeches that defy our expectations of where the story will lead -- culminating in moments of sheer chutzpah, that like the novel's hero, lead us to a happy ending.
When I asked Tolkin how Bill Clinton comes to make a cameo in the novel, after joking that it was paid product placement, Tolkin said, "I was trying to imagine something wonderful. It's one of these things where you're sitting at your desk, and you have a great cackle of pleasure, an idea bubbling out of the cosmos: Here, have him talk to Clinton."
Tolkin continued, "I wanted to give Griffin the happiest ending possible. I think, given the state of the world right now, given the nostalgic fantasy that but for the blue dress Clinton would have solved the world's problem, talking to Clinton to try to understand the world in which we live right now, who wouldn't want to do that? If you have that fantasy [as many do]." Plus, Tolkin admitted, "I wanted Clinton to say what I've always wanted him to say."
But beyond explaining himself, his marriage and his actions, Clinton becomes Griffin's confessor, and then leads him to consider King David "who sent Uriah into battle to die so he could marry Bathsheba." And what Clinton has to say about King David has a profound effect on Griffin, leading to the novel's surprising conclusion.
Which leads me to a different point. In our conversation, Tolkin told me, "Griffin's thinking more.... Part of his panic is that he's got an expanded consciousness, and he's frightened."
In the years since the publication of "The Player," Tolkin's consciousness has also expanded, in part from his studies as a Wexner fellow, a program seeded by retail magnate Leslie Wexner, which aims to educate potential Jewish volunteer leaders from diverse backgrounds in Jewish history and the challenges facing the Jewish community.
Tolkin grew up in a home that was not particularly observant, like many families that belonged to Reform synagogues in the 1950s. By the early 1990s, he belonged to three temples: the Orthodox B'nai David-Judea, the Conservative Temple Beth Am and the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood. He was studying with Rabbi Danny Landes, who is a faculty member of The Wexner Foundation, when he was invited to apply to become a fellow. For Tolkin, "The great thing about Wexner was the study." It is a program where one can learn from teachers from all over the spectrum, from historians to Reform and Orthodox scholars.
"What I discovered for myself, what drew me to studying with the Orthodox, was the discovery that the Reform prayer book had the prayers in Hebrew, but the translation was at best free form, and at worst inaccurate. When I discovered Artscroll [a publishing imprint of Jewish texts translated from an Orthodox perspective], I started looking at the more stringent translations, and I discovered a poetry and a structure in Jewish prayer that I never felt before." Tolkin noted that today, many congregations are creating their own new prayer books with renewed love for and emphasis on liturgy, which he sees as one of the greatest changes and improvements for "Klal Yisroel and the Galut."
Griffin Mill isn't Jewish, but his wife Lisa is, as is his partner, Phil Ginsburg, who stages a lavish bar mitzvah for his son. His outsider status allows Griffin to be an observer at events that other Jews might sit in judgment of. He is not searching for a spirituality that will force him to feel guilty, rather he is looking for a way to be honest -- and to connect.
Although Tolkin asserts that there is nothing about the events of the last four years that would make Griffin any less panicked, it also true that there is nothing that would make Griffin, and by that measure Tolkin himself, not embark on a journey to renounce that panic.
I can't say that I really know Michael Tolkin, although we went to the same college -- Middlebury -- and while our years there did overlap, we didn't know each other then. Coincidentally, in the years since graduation we have both made contributions to the college aimed at improving Jewish life there. Still, here and there, over the years, I've run into him, often at gatherings in support of Jewish causes.
I am always reading and hearing about how Hollywood refuses to support Israel or that Jews "are afraid to come out of the closet on Israel," but in my experience that is not the case. As Mel Gibson well knows, the International Jewish Conspiracy does meet on occasion, and over the years I have found myself in the same room, event or meeting as Michael Tolkin. He has written for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, speaking out forcefully against anti-Semitism, and presenting his drashes on matters secular and biblical, dressing down narrow-minded conservatives and fundamentalists, and shining some light for the rest of us wandering in the desert of modern America.