Steven Carter

"I Was Howard Hughes"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 24, 203)

"For dinner I had steak, mashed potatoes, peas. I forgot to bring my little rake, so I had to separate the too large peas from the correct size ones by hand."

Howard Hughes, sometimes speaking in the first person from his (fictional) diary, is an immensely talented and astute judge of investments, whose involvement in films, the aircraft industry, and real estate in Las Vegas were bonanzas. But as his life and personality unfold in this pseudo-biography, we also see him as a man who cannot control his own demons. While he was occasionally a practical joker, he was more often paranoid and jealous, and ultimately self-destructive. The legend of Howard Hughes, the richest man in America in the 1960s and 1970s, is not new, of course. Hughes provided the tabloids with fodder from his earliest days as a Hollywood producer and suitor of Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner (and many others), to his final deterioration. Author Steven Carter gives it a new treatment here, however, creating a fictional biographer, Alton Reece, to tell a fictional story about this real man, using as sources an invented and entirely fictional bibliography. Ultimately, the novel proves to be almost as much about Alton Reece as it is about Howard Hughes.

In the Acknowledgments pages at the front of the book, the fictional Alton Reece immediately establishes his persona and the background which has "qualified" him for the job of Hughes's biographer. He tells us in the opening paragraph that his first book, Melville and the Whale, was successful enough that his editor at a prestigious publishing house approached him about writing this biography as his second book. Tired from a book tour and from his move from Baltimore to Beverly Hills, he did not want to write a biography of Hughes, someone who did not interest him very much. We soon learn that Reece was, in reality, peeved because he felt the publishers hadn't publicized the Melville book well enough--until "the grassroots groundswell among independent booksellers" forced them to promote it. Feeling he deserved better treatment after his previous, successful book, he and his agent were "surprised" when these same publishers "balked at our asking price (let's just say seven figures)," for the Hughes biography, though eventually he did get his price and his contract.

Alton Reece is obviously not a "hungry" author, as he begins his biography of Hughes. Readers adept at reading between the lines will draw their own conclusions about Reece from the same Acknowledgments, noting that Reece relies on three assistants to do the "tedious aspects of research," that he didn't get along with people at the Hughes Archives, and that he accepted money from Fox TV, though, ultimately, "things didn't work out." He also indicates that he had failed to acknowledge his grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation in his previous book, something he corrects here, likening the MacArthur experience to "dealing with a seventeenth-century French king handing out Christmas Lagniappes." He is particularly resentful because he considers them "condescending" to him. Lastly, he apologizes to his wife for being away from her, "gadding about with Madonna," he tells us (and her), while he was working for Rolling Stone and writing this book. Obviously, modesty, self-effacement, and humility are not his strong suits. Here, and later, we note Reece's increasing similarities to Howard Hughes himself.

Reece declares that this is not going to be "the usual narrative biography…This is something different, a picaresque collection of interrelated stories, interviews, memos, and letters, that, taken together, describe a hero's rise and fall." With this strange "hero" as his subject, Reece interviews Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Jean Peters, and other Hughes contacts, filling the novel with detail as he personalizes the reclusive Hughes. All the interviews, like the biographer himself, are imaginative creations by author Steven Carter, however. The elaborate story of Howard Hughes's visit to Katharine Hepburn's family, and the description of his snubbing by these East Coast aristocrats, while hilarious and possibly based on fact, is also fictionalized. Quotations from Hughes's "diary" are invented, as are quotations by Richard Nixon, and notes by an FBI field agent. Transcripts of tape recordings are fictional, as is the information given to Reece by Hughes's former employees. Some readers may question the propriety of framing this entire Hughes biography from invented quotations purportedly made by real people, but I Was Howard Hughes is clearly labeled as fiction, albeit fiction about a real person, and author Steven Carter indicates that the basic information about Hughes's life is largely factual.

As Alton Reece recreates Hughes's life, from the Hollywood days in which he courts some of filmdom's great beauties, through his confrontations with Bugsy Siegel about gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, and his use of a double to throw the U.S. Government off his trail during an investigation, the reader notes the parallel deterioration in Reece's own life. Just as Hughes totes around a coffin-shaped box, its contents a well-guarded secret from even his closest aides, Reece carries around his own baggage, deluding himself and the public, though on a smaller scale. The conclusion of the novel, full of irony, will bring a smile to even the most jaded reader.

For anyone intrigued with the Howard Hughes story, this novel provides some unique, albeit fictional, glimpses into what might have been Hughes's thinking and into events which might have shaped his decisions. Humor, much of it slapstick, keeps the reader grounded in (fictional) reality, however much Hughes might be losing touch, and as the novel comes to a close and author Steven Carter has the last laugh, the reader will laugh along with him, maybe all the way to the next book tour.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews


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About the Author:

Steven Carter is a graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and has a PhD., from the University of Southern Mississippi. His short fiction has been published in literary magazines such as Antioch Review, Tin House, Northwest Review, Mississippi Review and others.

He currently teaches at Georgetown College in Kentucky.

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