The Unspoken Literary Truth of “Other Desert Cities”

February 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every so often it’s nice to get out from under the Hollywood Sign and go somewhere else–in this case, New York. Beyond the usual fun with friends, I wanted to see “Other Desert Cities” on Broadway with its current cast: Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths, Judith Light and Justin Kirk.

The play concerns the Wyeths, a wealthy retired couple living in a Lautner-esque stone-and-glass mansion in Palm Springs. Like Ronald Reagan, who gave him an ambassadorship, Lyman Wyeth (Keach) began as an actor and used his Hollywood fame as a springboard into Republican politics. His wife Polly (Channing), an impeccable blonde given to hilariously brittle observations, used to be part of a screenwriting team with her sister Silda (Judith Light), but quit Hollywood when it stopped being “fun.” The Lymans have two grown children–a troubled writer daughter named Brooke (Griffiths) and a TV producer son named Trip (Kirk). We soon learn there’s another Wyeth son–Henry, the eldest, who got mixed up with a radical group that bombed an army recruiting center in the early 70s, committed suicide by drowning, and is rarely spoken of by his family.

The play takes place during Christmas (naturally), when Brooke, home from the East Coast after a lengthy self-exile and nervous breakdown, unleashes her new manuscript on her unsuspecting parents. Called Love and Mercy, it deals with Henry, the long gone and strenuously unmentioned brother. Much drama ensues, along with a surprise I won’t reveal here. But what I can talk about without spoiling the plot is Brooke’s stubborn insistence that the book be published right away, with a lengthy excerpt in the New Yorker no less, and as a work of nonfiction. Her distressed parents beg her to withhold publication until after their deaths. But no one suggests the obvious: to publish the book as a novel.

After all, that’s what it is–an imagined account of a boy the author knew only when she was a child, and whose last, troubled months were unknown to her. There’s no more objective truth in Brooke’s book than there is in the most imaginative work of fiction, even if she can’t see it. Yet this option is never broached. The reason, I suspect, is that Brooke–for all her insistence that she doesn’t care about money–is well aware that the commercial prospects are far better for memoirs than novels. As a memoir, Love and Mercy is a sure-fire success; as a novel–well, who cares? Literary fiction in general challenges readers more than memoirs which, however “true,” tend to be more straightforward in style. But I would bet money that any novel, if presented as a memoir, would be more likely to be published, and more lucrative for the author. (Hence James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a roman a clef published as a memoir.) In her strident argument for publication, Brooke Wyeth proves as canny at business as she is at writing. If only her parents recognized it.

Note: “Other Desert Cities” will play in Los Angeles, with the same superb cast, in August. I highly recommend it.

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