Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beyond Words: The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

"There was a purity to silent films that can never be recaptured in this clamorous age of sound effects and talking. We who made them knew that the most vital parts of the stories -- as of life -- can never be reduced to mere words. We understood that moving images are the catalysts of dreams -- more eloquent when undisturbed by voices."

During a time when Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles could only live in a few designated neighborhoods, and whites agitated for a Constitutional amendment to bar Japanese immigrants (and their American-born children) from attaining citizenship, Jun Nakayama becomes one of Hollywood's biggest and most unlikely stars. He appears in over 60 films, tours cross-country selling war bonds, appears on the cover of Photoplay, and makes women swoon in the theatre aisles.

But then in 1922, shortly after the murder of acclaimed director Ashley Bennett Tyler, Jun's career suddenly, mysteriously ends. Jun becomes a recluse, his old friends abandon him, he never appears in another film -- and he never tells anyone the reason why.

When the book begins, it's 1964, and little has changed for Jun; however, everything is about to. A silent movie theatre is opening on Fairfax, and an eager reporter named Nick Bellingham approaches Jun for an interview about the old days. Jun refuses outright, but Nick is persistent. Eventually, he reveals the real reason he's been pursuing Jun -- he's written a screenplay, has a studio interested, and wants Jun to star. The role is exactly the kind that always eluded Jun during his film career -- dignified, complex, sympathetic -- and he's intrigued enough to sit down with Nick.

The silent film historians who have written about Jun by 1964 blame his disappearance from the screen on a lack of good roles for Asian actors. However, no one knows the truth, and when a studio head begins digging up dirt, Jun realizes he can't relive his glory days without revisiting their darker moments.

Discovered in a theatre in Little Tokyo, Jun quickly becomes a sex symbol, enjoys the company of white starlets, and frequently plays villainous characters that offend the Japanese-American community.

Though he prides himself in avoiding the worst kinds of "houseboy" roles, his career stands in sharp contrast to his friend and foil, the Japanese actress Hanako Minatoya. At first, Hanako is his idol, then his mentor; however, their friendship becomes strained as the anti-Japanese sentiment in Hollywood grows more virulent. Hanako knows the score, and isn't afraid to stand up to the studios, while Jun lives in a state of denial, believing that his stardom will spare him.

In the end, though, it can't. And while many clues signal the cause of Jun's downfall in advance, his inability to see them for himself make the eventual revelation as shocking for readers as it is for Jun.

The narrative voice Revoyr creates for Jun is masterful, stretched taut with restrained emotion, longing, and lost opportunity. Revoyr also depicts early Hollywood with exquisite detail, rendered even more so by Jun's attempt to revisit some of his old haunts only to find them turned derelict. Though the book is many things -- an examination of racial prejudice, a murder mystery, an account of a too-forgotten era of moviemaking -- each element of the story fits together seamlessly.

And although it's the story of a man who has lost nearly everything, it's not a book that dwells in shadows and loss; the resolution is such a piece of beauty and four-square perfection, it will take your breath away.

If you liked...: The Remains of the Day, this book is for you.
Note: The character of Jun Nakayama is very loosely based on the actor Sessue Hayakawa, who was also "discovered" performing in a Little Tokyo theatre, and had a successful silent film career. However, unlike Jun Nakayama, Hayakawa transitioned to the talkies, and in response to a lack of roles for Japanese actors, formed his own film production company. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957 for his role in Bridge on the River Kwai.

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