Owen King's first novel, Double Feature, will be released this Tuesday (March 19). Yours truly was lucky enough to win a copy -- a signed copy! -- from The Paranoid Style on Facebook, so unlike you
plebians fine folk, I've already read it.
How did I manage this, you might ask? Well, let's not get into it in excruciating detail; suffice it to say that I won a contest based on my love of the Christopher Cross song "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," which is almost certainly the first time this millennium that loving that song has paid off for anyone. Anyone, anywhere, in any way. Trust me, I was just as surprised as you probably are; almost certainly not as disgusted, though. In any case, it's lucky for me that I don't mind fessing up to a guilty pleasure every once in a while, because in this instance, it scored me a signed first edition of an outstanding new novel.
Double Feature, unlike "Arthur's Theme," is not a guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a pleasure that won't make you feel guilty at all, except, perhaps, guilty to be reading a better book than whatever your friends are reading currently; because odds are pretty decent that whatever they're reading, it won't be as good as Double Feature.
Here's the setup:
Sam Dolan is a college student who aspires to make a feature film. Not just any old feature film, either; he aspires to make Who We Are, a cleverly-structured art film that aims to show the world "the hard reality of how quickly the days sped up, how suddenly you weren't a kid anymore." Sam has written the screenplay and is ready to direct the film, provided he can get financing from somewhere.
Does he succeed? Well, let's just say "yes," and leave it at that. (The truth is more like "no," but the ways in which the answer is more a no than a yes are so catastrophically amusing that you will not catch me ruining the surprises for anyone. You deserve to discover them for yourself, and to have the same experience I had: laughing so hard while reading in your bedroom at two o'clock in the morning that you become afraid you might wake your neighbors up and have the cops called on you, and end up in jail on charges of assaultive merriment. Yes, it's true; I laughed so hard during certain scenes of this novel that I feared incarceration.)
Sam's struggles to film Who We Are are only a part of the story, though. Sam is undeniably the main protagonist of the novel, but the most memorable character is probably Booth Dolan, Sam's father. Booth is a washed-up actor/director who made a career out of starring in schlocky z-grade horror films. The descriptions of these films are worth the cover price of Double Feature; I kid you not, if Owen King produced a monthly pamphlet in which he laid out the plots of half a dozen fake movies, I'd pay full price for it. This stuff is gold. I won't ruin them for you, although I'll give you one tantalizing nugget: Plato fighting werewolves.
A moment ago, I referred to Booth as "washed-up," but the fact is that he can't be washed-up, because he was never whatever the opposite of washed-up is to begin with. He started out that way, so calling him washed up is technically not very accurate. Whatever the status of his celebrity, Booth's numerous quirks have helped make life a challenge for Sam. Booth is a hammy, larger-than-life man -- think Orson Welles by way of Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- whose exuberance and vitality seemingly have resulted in sending Sam in the opposite direction, toward dourness and gloom. Sam wants to create art that reveals the realities of life; Booth once starred in a movie about killer rats in which real rats were filmed on dollhouse-size sets so that they would seem to be the size of monsters. Naturally, there is a divide between their philosophies.
King creates an outstanding cast of characters. Booth is the stand-out, but Sam himself is quirky enough to be way more than a delivery system for conflicts with Booth (which is what he would have been in the hands of many authors, I suspect). In addition to Sam and Booth, here are a few of the other memorable folks you will encounter:
- Brooks, a fellow student of Sam's who is one of the principal investors and who has aspirations to make his own movies
- Polly, a former girlfriend of Sam's who is married, but not necessarily averse to still sleeping with Sam
- Rick Savini, an indie-film actor (think Steve Buscemi) who gets roped into appearing in Who We Are
- Allie, Sam's mother, who is amazingly tolerant of Booth's eccentricities
- Jo-Jo, Polly's husband, a German who used to play -- not particularly well -- for the Yankees
- Mina, Sam's half-sister, an adorably fucked-up teenager
- Wesley, Sam's roommate, who has parlayed sloth into a successful career as a blogger
- Tess, a television producer Sam meets at a wedding
- Costas, a Greek immigrant who becomes an unlikely movie star
And, amazingly, others. Virtually every character pops off the page; in this way, King is reminiscent of Larry McMurtry early in his fine career. You'll notice that McMurtry has supplied a blub for the front cover of Double Feature, and that seems appropriate; King's facility for creating characters that leave room for both comedy and tragedy to come pouring out of them in utterly realistic ways reminds me more than a little of McMurtry books like All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, or Moving On, or Texasville. The characters of those novels and of Double Feature are eccentrics and goofballs who occasionally feel as if they are too quirky to be realistic; in some ways they seem like caricatures moreso than characters.
IF, that is, you fail to remember that you yourself either know or have met or have heard described by someone real people who are infinitely weirder, with quirks that make the ones found between the pages of these books seem not only realistic, but comparatively tame. I've been to Dragon*Con; I know what type of people are out there in the world, just waiting for some writer like King to immortalize their quirks in character form.
[By the way, speaking of Larry McMurtry, he is one of my very favorite writers. In fact, I've got a blog devoted to his work. You can check it out here, but be warned: there's not really much there. It's less a blog than it is a placeholder for a blog to be blogged at a later date.]
Double Feature kinda blew me away, if you want to know the truth. I could complain about a few things: the text has more typos than you typically find in a book from a major publisher; also, certain aspects of the final scene felt a bit too coincidental and tidy. These complaints are minor enough so as to be mostly irrelevant; on the whole, this is a hilarious, engaging read, one that clearly marks King as a writer to be followed.
As I Tweeted not long after finishing: I could happily have kept reading about these people for another 1500 pages or so.
What more can you ask for from a novel than that, really?