On the Shelf
By Edward J. Delaney
Turtle Level: 280 pages, $18
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John Updike as soon as memorably described celeb as “a mask that eats into the face.” As Edward J. Delaney’s biographical novel “The Acrobat” opens, it’s 1959 and Cary Grant is beginning to imagine that his good-looking mug has been irreversibly chewed up.
“He’s always been convincingly false, as actors always are,” Delaney writes of his topic. However as Grant considers the tail finish of his profession, his id disaster has grown acute. His persona is simply too dignified and dapper for him to return to the form of screwball roles that launched him, like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Awful Truth.” However gravitas eludes him too: He handed on taking part in Harry Lime in “The Third Man” and has low expectations for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller he’s simply completed, tentatively titled “In a Northwesterly Direction.” Now, making “Operation Petticoat,” he’s being upstaged by Tony Curtis. That leaves him only one possibility, apparently: acid.
“The Acrobat” is framed because the story of Grant tunneling into his previous through LSD, which he experimented with within the late Nineteen Fifties with the encouragement of his third spouse, Betsy Drake. The drug hadn’t but been banned in the USA, nor even related to the counterculture; acid journeys had been a bourgeois pursuit, very like the psychotherapy that guided Grant to the drug. (His LSD journeys have made for irresistible cultural fodder of late: They play key elements within the 2017 documentary “Becoming Cary Grant” and the musical “Flying Over Sunset,” which ended a short Broadway run earlier this yr.)
“You become free of the usual discipline you impose upon yourself,” Grant as soon as stated of LSD, and Delaney emphasizes a personality itchy to flee his gilded cage. Whereas tripping, Grant reassesses his previous: Chapters ping-pong throughout time from his vaudeville days to his childhood to the talkies to middle-age ennui, jumbling the narrative to evoke Grant’s seek for a logical arc. It’s a intelligent method to construction a historic novel — and a extra fascinating method to write about LSD than making the language go all gluey and run-on. Delaney writes merely and superbly about Grant.
Archibald Alec Leach needed to placed on masks early. He was a product of a damaged residence in Bristol, England — his alcoholic father advised him his mom was lifeless, although many years later he’d study she was institutionalized. Left to his personal units, he discovered the theater, first working as a stagehand after which as a vaudeville performer with a specialty in stilt-walking and bodily comedy. (Therefore the novel’s title.) In 1920 he heads to America, cadging an on-deck assembly with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Fairbanks gives a bit of recommendation that means the fragility of the actor’s persona: “Never touch your face.” Trace, trace.
The star of “The Philadelphia Story” and “His Girl Friday” was chatty and smirking, however Delaney imagines Grant as cautious and self-serious to a fault. In 1959 he asks a make-up artist pal to render him unrecognizable, to see if he can mix in. A visit to a diner, the place a lady casually chats him up, suggests the thought is a hit, however there’s solely extra confusion within the triumph. “Is he a fake, or does she see him at his most real?”
That very same sense that he hasn’t resolved himself as an individual clouds his display screen work; Grant has cleaned mantel house “where his Oscars are supposed to go, until they never come.” It’s additionally true of his friendships, largely with reclusive varieties like Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo. And it’s true in his melancholy marriages, which he’s accused of embarking on for cash.
The novel’s dramatic plot, to the extent there’s one, activates Grant changing into reckless and snappish beneath the burden of all this: On a junket for “North by Northwest” he discloses his acid journeys to a reporter. Publicists sweat bullets; fits and countersuits are threatened. However Delaney is extra curious about Grant’s lack of success than its penalties. Doing vaudeville, he craves “feeling as if there’s someplace I really belong.” By the ’30s, “bigness became him,” however he is aware of he’s nonetheless on stilts. By the ’50s, he’s sensible sufficient to acknowledge the entice he’s in: “He wants his own Hollywood ending, but the problem is he actually lives in Hollywood.”
There’s no scarcity of novels trafficking in precisely this type of irony. The typical method of the Hollywood novel is to mock its veneers (Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” Michael Tolkin’s “The Player”); to lament the way it treats its stars (Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blonde,” Stewart O’Nan’s “West of Sunset”); or to disclose it as morally and criminally corrupt (James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential”).
Delaney, who’s written 5 earlier acclaimed works of fiction, goes after one thing subtler. He’s not satirizing Grant or Hollywood a lot as crafting a personality who’s successfully character-less. If Delaney clings overly a lot to his masks metaphors, he’s additionally delicate to how these masks change, how arduous they’re to take away.
If he’d wished, Delaney might have given his novel a cheerier, extra Hollywood ending by trying past 1959. “North by Northwest” is eternally bolted onto lists of one of the best movies ever. In 1963’s “Charade,” Grant acquired the road each actor craves: “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.” He acquired an honorary Oscar and spent his remaining years doing victory laps; he died whereas making ready for a Q&A with adoring followers.
However who might relate to that? “The Acrobat,” cannily, represents the darkish facet of the “stars, they’re just like us!” spreads in gossip rags. It’s constructed across the notion that all of us navigate life with uncertainty, that maybe a technique we’re all like celebrities is that all of us have masks too. “Only those similarly afflicted can see what is the better part of him,” Delaney writes — as regards to fame. However in reality the affliction is being uncertain of who we’re behind our screens.
Athitakis is a author in Phoenix and writer of “The New Midwest.”