Leslie Epstein

"San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson AUG 20, 2003)

San Remo Drive by Leslie Epstein

It is said that a memoir is a collection of lies, while a good novel tells the truth. San Remo Drive can be described as a quirky, but deeply felt memoir. It is also a novel, exploring family, circumstance, childhood fear and fantasy, adult sadness and regret. A mixture of remembered personal history and creative novelistic fabrication, San Remo Drive is a revelatory excursion through an experienced past using memory as guide.

The novel takes the reader back to Hollywood in the early 1950s, when reality was manufactured and characters were larger than life. Like Richard Jacobi, the book's narrator, author Leslie Epstein spent his formative years in that unique time and place. In the 1940's and 1950's, Epstein's father and his uncle, twin brothers Phillip G. Epstein and Julius J. Epstein, wrote highly successful screenplays, including scripts for Arsenic and Old Lace, Casablanca, and many other movie classics. Epstein's annual Halloween was trick-or-treating at Gregory Peck's just down the block. Sunday's meant a gathering of the "Lox and Bagel Society," where Elizabeth Taylor and other luminaries of the Hollywood Jewish community shared a festive brunch in the Epstein dining room.

The main players in the melodrama that is San Remo Drive are, like Epstein's, a family of four. Richard, the oldest son, is Epstein's persona. Bartie, Richard's younger brother, is the victim of what would be diagnosed today as Attention Deficit Disorder. His inappropriate, but often accurate, rantings cast him as the wise fool.

Norman, the father, is a successful screenwriter with an intelligent, irreverent wit. In the early 1950's, when he is called before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, Norman responds to the "are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been" questions with disrespectful joking. Asked if he had belonged to a subversive organization, he answers "Yes, Warner Brothers." (His employer.) Asked to identify organization members, he recites the names of HUAC's members.

Rounding out the cast is Lotte, glamorous and seductive socialite. Lotte is admired by passing celebrities as she reclines beguiling at the exclusive Rivera Country Club. Afternoons, she swims laps, bikini clad, in the backyard pool. She plays Schubert sonatas on the living room grand piano. Evenings are reserved for posh parties and formal dinners.

Put these characters on the movie set that is Hollywood in its heyday, and you have all the elements for a major motion picture. An advertising poster might read: "See a Famous Family Experience Pathos, Comedy, and Misadventure." (The movie would be R-rated. Occasional sexual scenes are always cathartic, necessary to plot advancement, insightful, rather than salacious.)

San Remo Drive is built from slice-of-life set pieces. These intertwined vignettes each could stand alone; together, they tell sad and often comic tales, thoroughly infused with black humor. Epstein has said that some content is written from actual events, some from his creative imagination. These two sources fit together seamlessly.

Early in the book and shortly after his HUAC testimony, Norman dies when he and his car slam into a large tree. This leaves Lotte to take charge. Familiar with giving orders and being admired, taking charge is not something she takes to naturally. Six months after Norman's death, Lotte marries a would-be French artist. Later, his talent is revealed as the art of con. He loots most of the Epstein bank accounts. While some money remains, it is not enough to support a Hollywood mansion and accompanying lifestyle. Eventually, the house must be sold to send Richard out east to Yale. Riches-to-rags is another element of the family saga.

An especially poignant story-within-the-story describes young Richard crawling into a tunnel beneath his house. He discovers two black men repairing the sewage system. Moved by their working class earthiness, Richard, exercising newly found liberalism, tries to convince them to vote for Harry Truman in the next day's presidential election. "I don't practice all that, young man," Eddie, one of the men, replies. "Truman never did nothing for me."

Later, Eddie poses a rhetorical question to Richard. "You a Jew, ain't you?" Not waiting for an answer, Eddie vividly begins to describe a concentration camp that he had seen in World War II. He saw, he says, "walking skeletons. Bones that was moving. You could not tell the dead from the living." Simultaneously, the pre-teen Richard unawares is being molested sexually by Martin, Eddie's partner, and a massive giant. Richard escapes, rescued by a frantic call from Bartie.

In another highly descriptive episode, it is summer. Richard is home from college following his freshman year. He chronicles a pilgrimage to Tijuana made with three other boys nicknamed Penguin, Pumpkin, and Cow, all his former high school friends. Theirs is a bumbling, comic adventure. The boys are seeking to become men, determined to lose their virginity, even if by commercial means. Sordidly, the mission is accomplished. The boys make the transition, Epstein writes with a bleak prescience, "from the light that plays about childhood into the shadow that is always associated with the union of the sexes: desuetude, obsolescence, aging, decay."

Richard's across-the-street, childhood sweetheart, the beautiful, enigmatic Madeline, is the love of his life. When they are eleven-year-olds, she models semi-nude for him as he discovers his talent as an artist. More than infatuation, for Richard this attraction is the focus of his existence. Only love of Madeline creates meaning. Years later, Richard is married, to Marcia, not to Madeline, proof of the elusiveness of dreams. He has repurchased his San Remo Drive boyhood home, and he is raising a dysfunctional family of his own. Madeline remains a major presence. She is model, mistress, muse. Richard has become a famous painter. He has an upcoming exhibition at the Louvre. A collision with his wife, Marcia, forms a wild and gruesome episode.

If much of the above makes San Remo Drive sound depressing, it is. But, like many successful works of art, the book embraces and then transcends dark and despairing thoughts and emotions. It takes the reader to a higher, wise and accepting plane.

San Remo Drive is highly visual, engrossingly cinematic. It is filled with vivid, memorable images. Also, it is beautifully drawn. Each word is the right word. Every word is in the right place. That this difficult literary accomplishment goes unnoticed, yet is appreciated, marks a good, if not great, writer. For a number of years, Epstein has directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. His writing certainly qualifies him for that position.

We are born, things happen incidentally, then we die. Some philosophers argue that this is the synopsis of life's simple script. Not every life can win an Academy Award for struggling towards meaning. The characters in Epstein's novel deserve at least to be nominated. And, as the screen goes dark, the audience may either sit in silent sympathy or applaud in realized recognition. No one will leave the theatre unmoved.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from San Remo Drive at The New York Times

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About the Author:

Leslie EpsteinLeslie Epstein was born in Los Angeles to a family of legendary film makers. He left California for an undergraduate degree at Yale and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. In addition to the Rhodes scholarship, he has received many honors, including a Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowship, and awards for Distinction in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for his creation of Leib Goldkorn, a residency at the Rockefeller Institute in Bellagio and various grants from the NEA. His book Pandemonium was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction. His earlier novel, King of the Jews, has become a classic of Holocaust Fiction and published in eleven foreign languages.

His articles and stories have appeared in such places as Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Playboy, the Yale Review, TriQuarterly, Tikkun, Partisan Review, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. He has been the director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University for more than twenty years. Having sent his own three children off to college and beyond, he lives with his wife, Ilene, in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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