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Exclusive excerpts from ‘Zeroville’

Steve Erickson mines American film fantasies

Steve Erickson’s novel “Zeroville,” (Europa Editions, Nov. 9) digs into Hollywood’s deep impact on our lives. Here are exclusive excerpts:

On Vikar’s shaved head is tattooed the right and left lobes of his brain. One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other’s arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.

This is the summer of 1969, two days after Vikar’s 24th birthday. He’s been in Los Angeles an hour, after a six-day bus trip from Philadelphia, and eats a French dip sandwich at Philippe’s. A hippie nods at Vikar’s head. “Dig it, man. My favorite movie.”

“I believe it’s a very good movie,” Vikar agrees.

“Love that scene at the end. There at the Planetarium.”

Vikar stands and in one motion brings the food tray up —

— and then crashing down on the blasphemer across the table. He catches the napkin, floating like a parachute, in time to wipe his mouth. ” ‘A Place in the Sun,’ George Stevens,” Vikar says to the fallen man, pointing at his own head, “NOT ‘Rebel Without a Cause,'” and strides out.

* * *

He’s been living in the Hollywood Hills seven weeks when one night he hears footsteps on the stairs outside. He rises from bed, unplugs his radio, glides into the dark of the kitchen. When someone steps through the door, he smashes the radio on the intruder’s head.

Vikar ties the black man with a large afro to a chair. He sits on the couch and turns on the television to a Bette Davis movie. Paul Henreid puts two cigarettes in his mouth and lights both, handing one to Davis. The burglar comes to; it’s a moment before he realizes he’s bound. “What are you staring at?” he says to his captor.

“Your hair,” says Vikar.

“You’re staring at my hair?” The burglar nods at Vikar’s head. “You want to see some strange shit maybe you should look in the mirror sometime. Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in the terrace scene from George Stevens’ ‘A Place in the Sun’ tattooed on this motherfucker’s head, and he’s staring at my hair.”

Vikar sits up on the couch. “That’s right,” he says. “It is Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from ‘A Place in the Sun.'”

“Yeah, I know that, fool. Isn’t that what I just said?”

“Most people think it’s Natalie Wood and James Dean from ‘Rebel Without a Cause.'”

” ‘Rebel Without a Cause’?” the burglar says in disbelief.

“I’m in the Movie Capital of the World and nobody knows anything about movies. All anyone talks about is music. You weren’t going to kill me and write ‘pig’ on the door in my blood, were you?”

“Are you being funny, jackass?” the burglar glares at Vikar. “Don’t you read the papers? That was some fucked-up white hippies did that business.” A silence falls between them; for about ten minutes they watch TV. “Here’s the scene,” the burglar says, “I love this part. The looks on their faces when Bette goes from being the frump to the fox.”

” ‘Now, Voyager,'” says Vikar.

“Yeah, I know it’s ‘Now, Voyager,’ man. You think I don’t know that? The apotheosis of the 1940s studio system’s so-called ‘women’s picture’? Like I don’t know it’s ‘Now, Voyager.'”

“I like the music in ‘Now, Voyager.’ John Garfield in ‘Humoresque,’ playing the violin when he walks into the sea.”

“Joan Crawford walks into the sea in ‘Humoresque,'” says the burglar.

Vikar says, “Are you sure?”

“Why would John Garfield walk into the sea? How is John Garfield going to play the violin if he walks into the sea? You ever seen anybody trying to play the violin while walking into the sea?”

“He could. He could play the violin while walking into the sea.” Vikar says, “I guess I’m not sure, to be honest.”

“It’s Joan Crawford who walks into the sea. Take my word for it.”

* * *

Vikar and the 5-year-old girl sit on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway, eating their fish tacos. Although it’s not dark yet, they can see the moonlight on the ocean. “I saw the movie about the gangsters,” says Zazi.

“Which one?” says Vikar.

“The man and woman who rob banks and shoot people.”

“You saw that movie?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand comedies,” says Vikar.

“What’s a comedy?”

“A funny movie.”

“That movie was funny?” says Zazi. She looks at Vikar. “I want a picture on my head.”

Reprinted by permission of the author.