Review: Fear and flailing in L.A.: A frustrated writer finds redemption in Fitzgerald's ghosts

1937: Portrait of American author F Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940)
F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood in 1937, three years before his death. In a new memoir, Matthew Specktor looks to the novelist for lessons on failure and success. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I try to imagine the shining moment when the human traveler arrives at a long-sought destination. “Yes. I have arrived at Success,” I imagine they think. Do they drink a bottle of Champagne to celebrate? Call their mother? Because after the hangover passes and a new day dawns, panic must set in. What now?

Matthew Specktor, like many of us, is much more familiar with the vast space on the margins of this legendary land. In “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” he superimposes the territory of success onto a map of Hollywood. Walking streets where familiar corners summon his memories of missed opportunities, he observes the new batches of those perpetual hopefuls who come to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune. And everywhere he goes, he sees the shadows left behind by their forebears.

What piece of the sidewalk does Specktor occupy?

The author, whose father is an agent at Creative Artists Agency, begins his journey with the recognition of his own entitlement, the disquieting sense that one’s lack of success is completely the result of a personal failing. Absent the structural barriers built on race, gender, ability and money, Specktor excoriates Specktor:

“I blamed myself, restless memory, restless mind, whatever it was in me that couldn’t get comfortable where I was, that insisted, against both common sense and evidence, that I’d be happier somewhere else, once the future (what future?) had conferred recognition upon me. Never mind that this feeling had another name, entitlement, or that my own willful obliviousness to it constituted a further crime.”

In many ways, Specktor’s book belongs to the genre of grief memoirs, those books written in the wake of enormous loss. He untangles the messy feelings of midlife, the loss of his mother to cancer and the ambivalence provoked by returning home. He had left Los Angeles years earlier for college in the East.

“I’d ejected myself with the force of a hair ball,” he writes. In the 1990s, he lived in New York City and worked for a famous actor. His life consisted of expensive dinners and the trappings of success, which he now deems the “illusion … of a seamless consubstantiality, as if I myself were comprised of the same expensive material that made up the Italian suits.” He looks back on those days with nostalgia tinged by the suspicion that it all added up to nothing.

This disappointment has burrowed into every corner of his life. His wife has left him, their house is gone, and though he has published a well reviewed novel, his career as a screenwriter feels stillborn. He doesn’t know how to measure himself. He begins to wonder if his best days are behind him. At 15, he had loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories of those who had flamed out in spectacular fashion after early success. But what if there had been no success before the burnout?

In this fallen state, Specktor lands in an apartment — a “ghost crib” the real estate agent told him had once housed Al Pacino — alone. When his child asks him what he does for a living, he tries to explain his life as a writer: “I make things up.” Hardly the description of a grownup.

From this stuck place, though, Specktor determines to map out a territory between success and failure — the interstices where most of us live, though rarely are they spoken of in all-or-nothing Hollywood. Digging back through his own personal influences, he finds the specters of those who never quite achieved the recognition that should have followed. How did they make peace with it? Specktor sees their stories as foundational to his own, each having “something to say about these questions of failure and achievement,” about how artists fare in America.

Eleanor Perry. Frank Perry. Carole Eastman. Thomas McGuane. Tuesday Weld. Warren Zevon. Hal Ashby. Michael Cimino. Renata Adler. All inhabit a solar system lighted by Specktor’s sun — Fitzgerald. Specktor’s apartment faces the building in which Fitzgerald died. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” opens and closes — in a remarkable series of final paragraphs — with Fitzgerald, especially “The Great Gatsby,” that story of chasers of the American dream who butt up against those born upon its pinnacle.

While acknowledging the problems of race and antisemitism in “Gatsby,” Specktor sees in certain passages an accurate rendering of the love-hate relationship writers have with humanity and with themselves. Fitzgerald landed in Hollywood and took screenwriting assignments that paid only a portion of what he had been making as the Great American Novelist. Specktor sees him as a ghost of himself in Los Angeles, one who left traces all over town.

It is difficult not to write a review that is simply a compendium of Specktor’s bons mots. Whether referring to Twitter as that place “where the consequences of a million small frauds are written out daily” or adulthood as when the “middle-aged wannabe … fails to live up to his inflated hopes for himself,” Specktor makes a habit of stripping away the protective coating of euphemism. But it isn’t all subtraction; he also offers moments of nurturing clarity.

The chapter on Eastman opens with a difficult phone conversation between Specktor and his mother, a woman who had tried modeling, acting, painting, fiction writing and screenwriting, but invariably would “walk away before any real reckoning of her talent could take place.” Their relationship, marred by alcoholism, had “mended but never really healed.” But Specktor credits her with teaching him everything he knows about literature, film and, later, forgiveness. I recognized the particular pain of living with an alcoholic parent who, when sober, fills a child’s heart and head with inspiration. It was his mother who introduced him to “Five Easy Pieces,” a film written by Carole Eastman under the male pen name Adrien Joyce.

Tracing Eastman’s career, Specktor finds points of intersection, both literal and spiritual, with his parents. Eastman’s desire to write and to be left alone reminds him of his mother. Also: How one can be hungry to be discovered but afraid of being judged; how one can desire to play but struggle to be playful; how an intelligent woman can be dismissed as “difficult to work with.”

Writing through his troubles, Specktor offers consolatory beauty, much as fireweed blooms on hillsides after the destruction of a forest. For centuries, moral cartographers have plotted the road to success. It always seems to be over the next pass, at the bottom of the next canyon. Letting go of such illusions is not a tragedy. It can even lead to new places, real ones.

One night, unable to sleep, Specktor goes for a drive and ends up on Mulholland. Below him, L.A. glows and glitters. He ends at a transitory, enchanted moment, holding his breath in the presence of the city laid out before him. In that moment, he can see the Los Angeles where the people he loves lie sleeping, where the “green breast of the new world” beckons to the newly arrived dreamers. But his is a different kind of happiness. Discovering one’s true size feels like contentment.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.