Reviews of Big Red by Jerome Charyn

Big Red

A Novel Starring Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

by Jerome Charyn

Big Red by Jerome Charyn X
Big Red by Jerome Charyn
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  • Published:
    Aug 2022, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Alexandros Mantzaris
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About this Book

Book Summary

Narrated by a starry-eyed lesbian, Big Red reimagines the tragic career of Rita Hayworth and her indomitable husband, Orson Welles.

Since he first appeared on the American literary scene, Jerome Charyn has dazzled readers with his "blunt, brilliantly crafted prose" (Washington Post). Yet Charyn, a beloved comedic novelist, also possesses an extraordinary knowledge of Golden Age Hollywood, having taught film history both in the United States and France.

With Big Red, Charyn reimagines the life of one of America's most enduring icons, "Gilda" herself, Rita Hayworth, whose fiery red tresses and hypnotic dancing graced the silver screen over sixty times in her nearly forty-year career. The quintessential movie star of the 1940s, Hayworth has long been objectified as a sex symbol, pin-up girl, and so-called Love Goddess. Here Charyn, channeling the ghosts of a buried past, finally lifts the veils that have long enshrouded Hayworth, evoking her emotional complexity―her passions, her pain, and her inner turmoil.

Charyn's reimagining of Hayworth's story begins in 1943, in a roomette at the Hollywood Hotel, where narrator Rusty Redburn―an impetuous, second-string gossip columnist from Kalamazoo, Michigan―bides her time between working as a gofer in the publicity offices of Columbia Pictures, volunteering at an indie movie house, and pursuing dalliances with young women on the Sunset Strip. Called upon by the manipulative Columbia movie mogul Harry "The Janitor" Cohn to spy on Hayworth―then, the Dream Factory's most alluring "dame," and Cohn's biggest movie star―Rusty becomes Rita's confidante, accompanying her on a series of madcap adventures with her indomitable husband, the "boy genius" Orson Welles.

But Rusty, an outlaw who can see beyond the prejudices of Hollywood's male-dominated hierarchy, quickly becomes disgusted with the way actresses, and particularly Rita, are exploited by men. As she struggles to balance the dangerous politics of Tinseltown with her desire to protect Rita from ruffians and journalists alike, Rusty has her own encounters―some sweet, some bruising―with characters real and imagined, from Julie Tanaka, an interned Japanese-American friend, to superstars like Clark Gable and Tallulah Bankhead, as well as notorious Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Reanimating such classic films as Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai, Big Red is a bittersweet paean to Hollywood's Golden Age, a tender yet honest portrait of a time before blockbusters and film franchises―one that promises to consume both Hollywood cinephiles and neophytes alike. Lauded for his "polymorphous imagination" (Jonathan Lethem), Charyn once again has created one of the most inventive novels in recent American literature.

The Kid from Kalamazoo, 1943
1

I was an actress who couldn't act, a dancer who couldn't dance, a singer who couldn't sing. So I went straight to Hollywood after my sophomore year at college in Kalamazoo. Still, I wasn't much of a maverick. I had grown up on a farm in southern Illinois. Both my parents couldn't read a word. I promised myself that I would become a reader, and I did become one, with a fierce regard for language. But language alone couldn't imprison me with its pleasures. I saw every film that reached our rural town. There were no picture palaces on the plains, but we did have fifty-seaters in every nearby hamlet. That's how I discovered the world, watching William Powell and Myrna Loy eat breakfast in their pajamas... .

I lived in a roomette at the Hollywood Hotel, right on the boulevard, near Musso's and the trolley car line, with the constant hiss of overhead wires, and despite the racket, I still felt like a grand duchess. I worked in the basement of the Writers' ...

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Reviews

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Where intrigue and film discussion (occasionally somewhat elegiac in tone) hold each other in balance, the book flows pleasantly. It is when the sleuth gives way to the diatribist — notably towards the book's middle — that the result can be somewhat slow. The narrative then sometimes sounds like it belongs more to a documentary in tribute of Welles's filmmaking than to a novel. Charyn, quite capable in the good old days of the sort of operatic metafiction whose mere plot synopsis — or rather the very idea of presenting one — was enough to give you a headache, offers simpler fare here. Big Red is not the worse for it...continued

Full Review (747 words).

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(Reviewed by Alexandros Mantzaris).

Media Reviews

Chicago Review of Books
Using Rusty as narrator serves as a successful framing device for the story, as her perspective affords readers a behind-the-scenes glance at two of the most beguiling figures of mid-20th century American cinema. Her descriptions are vivid, humorous, and perceptive... Charyn's love for film history shines through.

The Wall Street Journal
Cinematic and bittersweet...[Charyn] subtly evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in telling his saga of star-crossed charismatics through the eyes of an all-seeing peripheral figure, an outsider-insider named Rusty Redburn...His novel, with its multiple layers of fiction and fact, resurrects the vanished world it celebrates and explicates it in all its grand illusion.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[An] affecting and searing portrait of Silver Screen superstars....Charyn offers rapid-fire dialogue and slapstick action ('So it's a bit of blackmail,' Orson says at one point, 'lunging' at an adversary though he 'wasn't much of a gladiator with his big flat feet') along with affecting character development. It's a rewarding paean to some of cinema's greats.

Kirkus Reviews
[S]urprisingly affecting...A novel that transcends concept with its human touches.

Author Blurb Brenda Wineapple, author of The Impeachers
No one writes historical fiction better than Jerome Charyn, and Big Red, his latest, narrated by the marvelously wry Rusty Redburn, is the hilarious and moving tale of a bygone Hollywood―its glamour, its stars, its moguls, its dreams, and its victims―all told with the tender wisdom of a good friend.

Author Blurb Brian Koppelman, co-creator and showrunner of Billions
Big Red is the most entertaining book I've read all year. It's as if Herman Wouk and James Ellroy had a love child, and that love child was given a typewriter at birth. This is a wise, hilarious, and very deep look into Hollywood's ambitions, dreams, and indulgences. I hope Jerome Charyn is already at work on its sequel.

Author Blurb Imogen Sara Smith, film critic and author of In Lonely Places
Jerome Charyn's movie-love dances like a flame over every page of Big Red. Like its gloriously outspoken narrator―who never existed but should have―the book is bewitched by cinema and also hardheaded about the crass, exploitative reality of the dream factory. It's a dazzling romp through old Hollywood, and a fiercely loving effort to set the record straight.

Author Blurb Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn
"In an astounding sixth decade of productivity, Jerome Charyn remains one of our finest writers... Whatever milieu he chooses to inhabit, his characters sizzle with life, and his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable."

Author Blurb Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature.

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Beyond the Book

Movie Columnist Louella Parsons

Black and white photo of Louella ParsonsLouella Parsons (1881-1972) was a pioneer newspaperwoman, a famous movie columnist and, for many years, a principal purveyor of Hollywood gossip to the world. Nevertheless, according to Samantha Barbas, author of an extremely thorough biography of Parsons, it was only in 1949 that she first veered into the realm of scandal by revealing Ingrid Bergman's illicit pregnancy to an astonished public.

Upon reading the above, this reviewer wondered what on earth Louella had been doing all that time previously if not scandal-mongering. Yet, hard as it may be to conceive today, it seems that she built the better part of her long and lucrative career gossiping non-scandalously. That is, she spent a few decades persuading her audience that their ...

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