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Basement of Wolves: a novel by Daniel Allen Cox – Book Review

I’ve never been a genuine Hollywood fan. Even the Oscars fail to allure me, because I don’t own a television. And I never keep up with tabloid news – unless I’m stuck in a long Safeway queue. I also despise most big-money cinema flicks featuring A-list stars, who own scores of mega-mansions, Ferraris, and diamond-shaped swimming pools. I think you get the idea.

Yet Basement of Wolves enticed me to fall into a story about California’s silver screen subculture. In Cox’s latest book, he drops the reader into a strange planet packed with bad reviews, TMZ head hunters, cocaine snowdrifts, and boozy nocturnal car rides through Beverly Hills. A fascinating, dark, and often comical underworld.

Perhaps the greatest component of Basement of Wolves is found in the author’s manipulation of sentence fragments. These brief sentence-bursts are purposed to give the book’s general text a descriptive and poetic tone, by setting crucial objects and descriptive words dramatically apart from each another.

Even if Basement of Wolves is not always Martin Amis-brilliant, Cox could easily put out Martin Amis-brilliant material. Cox’s literary genius is found through his use of excellent descriptive phrases, which are constructed within a simplistic bone-bare framework.  Consider Cox’s uncomplicated, but picturesque depiction of a car trip through Runyon Canyon.

We were edged on the promontory in front of the scraggly shrubs that tumbled down Runyon Canyon into blackness. There were probably a few lost cars down there, skeletons still buckled up. Suicides, for sure (Page 22).

Basement of Wolves is largely explicated in the first person narrative. The central story concerns a Hollywood actor named Michael-David, who is suffering through the last legs of a soured acting career. While Michael-David gets older, he’s losing all the best roles to an actor he’s nicknamed Pinchable Cheeks. However, a madcap filmmaker and possible Scientologist named Chris Culpepper – who is financially backed by an arrogant bully of a film executive named Giancarlo – has found an ‘ideal’ movie role for Michael-David.

We spend a bit of time on the set with Michael-David, who is starring in Culpepper’s cinematic rotten tomato about a trombone player with a wolf connection, and an irrepressible desire to kill his father. Michael-David has noticed several red flags about the filming starts, but the actor has chosen to ignore his internal dire warnings. He needs the work.

Culpepper’s haphazard synopsis of the potential film shows little structural merit from the beginning. Culpepper even hurriedly writes the bulk of his ridiculous script while on the set. Michael-David knows this crazed mad artist is making this doomed film up as he goes along and is unimpressed. At the film’s finale, Michael-David is expected to kill his father with a gun fashioned from a trombone. This is unfortunate, because Michael-David despises guns of all kinds – even novelty weapons. Holding a prop gun is enough to propel the actor into a nauseous moment. There were many times when I thought Michael-David needed his face slapped, because this annoying, high-maintenance character is capable of getting ill at the drop of a damned hat.

I suddenly feel sick. A riptide of nausea. Saliva glands overproduce, inundating me on the spot (Page 85).

Michael-David is a thin-skinned and vulnerable artist trapped inside a malicious world where money is central to everything. Michael-David doesn’t have much respect for cash, but worships all kinds of alcohol. This is a character who always seeks an escape route out of the Hollywood trap. Eventually, Michael-David is successful.

The reader also becomes acquainted with couple of Michael-David’s youthful skater groupies – Jared and Tim. Tim is the most developed character – a chemistry genius and meticulous doomsday plotter. Tim, who later plays an odd saviour role, hooks up with Michael-David in a downtown Los Angeles hotel, where the actor is trying to avoid the premier of his disastrous movie – a picture on a time-honoured cliché about man raised by wolves.

Culpepper is enlisted by Giancarlo to locate Michael-David before the premier begins.

I related to Culpepper more than Michael David, who is a forceful but amusing eccentric. Culpepper is often too paranoid and self-serving, but he’s also less neurotic and irritating than Michael-David. Culpepper also ventures into extreme behaviour, and so this character becomes the focal point of many humorous scenes. The filmmaker’s trips to the surveillance store for clandestine equipment were hilarious, as were most of Culpepper’s excited altercations with Michael-David.

This is an enjoyable story told by an exceptional writer, and my misplaced sympathy for Culpepper shouldn’t obscure the good quality of writing featured in Basement of Wolves.