Excerpt from Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Mercury Pictures Presents

A Novel

by Anthony Marra

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra X
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra
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  • Published:
    Aug 2022, 432 pages


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Sunny Siberia

When you entered the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, you would first see a scale model of the studio itself. Artie Feldman, co-founder and head of production, installed it in the lobby to distract skittish investors from second thoughts. Complete with back lot, sound stages, and facilities buildings, the miniature was a faithful replica of the ten-acre studio in which it sat. Maria Lagana, as rendered by the miniaturist, was a tiny, featureless figure looking out Artie's office window. And this was where the real Maria stood late one morning in 1941, hands holstered on her hips, watching a pigeon autograph the windshield of her boss's new convertible. She'd like to buy that bird a drink.

"It's a beautiful day out, Art," Maria said. "You should really come have a look."

"I have," Artie said. "It made me want to jump."

Artie wasn't known for his joie de vivre, but he usually didn't fantasize about ending it all this close to lunch. Maria wondered if the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda was giving him agita, but no—the crisis at hand was on his head. His bald spot had finally grown too large for his toupee to conceal.

Six other black toupees were shellacked atop wooden mannequin heads on the shelf behind his desk, where a more successful producer might display his Oscars. They were conversation starters. As in, Artie began conversations with new employees by telling them the toupees were the scalps of their predecessors.

As far as Maria could tell, the six hairpieces were the same indistinguishable model and style, but Artie had become convinced that each one crackled with the karmic energy of the hair's original head, unrealized and awaiting release, like a static charge smuggled in a fingertip. Thus, he'd named his toupees after their personalities: The Heavyweight, The Casanova, The Optimist, The Edison, The Odysseus, and The Mephistopheles. Artie had never felt more at home in his adoptive country than when he learned the Founding Fathers had all worn toupees, even that showboat John Hancock. The only one who hadn't was Benjamin Franklin. And look how he turned out: a syphilitic Francophile who got his jollies flying kites in the rain.

"Maybe the toupee shrunk," he said, still hoping for a miracle.

"I think you'll need one with more coverage, Art."

"That's the second time this year. Christ, when will it end?"

"Life's nasty and brutish but at least it's short."

"Yeah? I'm not so optimistic."

Artie didn't believe in aging gracefully. He didn't believe in aging at all. At fifty-three, he maintained the same exercise regime that had made him a promising semi-professional boxer before a shattered wrist forced him into the only other business to reward his brand of controlled aggression. (He still kept a speedbag mounted to his office wall and liked to pummel it while in meetings with unaccommodating agents.) Sure, maybe he lost a step; maybe his knees sounded like a pair of maracas when he climbed stairs; maybe the boys in the mailroom let him win when he challenged them to arm-wrestling matches—but he wasn't getting old.

Or so Maria imagined Artie telling himself. In truth, she'd begun to worry about him. In four days, he would sit at a witness table on Capitol Hill, where he would testify alongside the heads of Warner Bros, MGM, Twentieth Century–Fox, and Paramount. It was shaping into a pivotal confrontation between campaigners for free speech and crusaders for government censorship. But as far as Maria could tell, Artie was more preoccupied with his toupee than his opening statement.

On the topic of censorship, he said, "Have you heard back from Joe Breen?"

"Earlier this morning."

"And? Will he approve the script for Devil's Bargain?"

Maria said nothing.

"I'm going to pull the rest of my hair out, aren't I?"

Excerpted from Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra. Copyright © 2022 by Anthony Marra. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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