Zwilling’s Dream
Ross Feld
Counterpoint, $25

Joel Zwilling, the title character of Ross Feld’s Zwilling’s Dream, is by his own admission a failed novelist. In his youth he published a semi-autobiographical novel about the son of two Holocaust survivors; it was a minor critical success, but his subsequent two novels sank without a trace, and by the present day of this novel, he has long since given up any desire to write. Underpinning this professional failure is a harrowing personal tragedy, the deaths of Zwilling’s wife and daughter (a twin) in a freak automobile accident. Now middle-aged and remarried to a lawyer named Barbara, Zwilling lives off inheritance money and investments in Cincinnati, where he doesn’t do much of anything except worry about the surviving twin, his son Nate. Nate and his angry wife Polly are stars of ’zine culture, chronicling their life together in a popular journal, an effort Zwilling senior watches with bemusement and, as with everything else in his life, a frightened detachment:

[Zwilling’s] days had turned into slimy snail tracks, non-days during which he’d snack desperately, without appetite, so much so that sometimes he’d throw up or have to run to the bathroom with cramps. He read inattentively. He did some reshelving of his overgrown collection of old records, LPs. Without seeing, he watched endless loops of cable news and the stock-market channel, which were good only for alarming him every half hour.

This anxious detachment is sorely tested when Zwilling’s long-lost first novel is discovered by Brian Horkow, a once-promising filmmaker whose three films to date were box-office failures. A complicated deal is hatched, by which Nate will write the screenplay of his father’s book, Horkow will move temporarily to Cincinnati to scout locations, and Zwilling, stunned to find himself a property after all these years, will serve as a consultant.

The rest of this odd, sly, and extremely entertaining novel is an account of everything that does not happen: Nate does not finish the screenplay. The film’s financing falls through, and Horkow hilariously alienates much of Cincinnati before fleeing back to Marin County. Zwilling almost, but not quite, has an affair with Horkow’s tough, sexy producer, Selva, and in the end, doesn’t even cash the check that Horkow gave him. And, as in Feld’s earlier work, at least one character is gravely ill. Feld has written about cancer and stroke in his other novels, and in this case Horkow’s daughter has cystic fibrosis, giving Feld’s sharp-eyed portrait of a Hollywood asshole real poignancy and depth.

The book is a diffident but beguiling performance, obliquely told and gently ironic, sustained not so much by storytelling as by vividly precise characterization and artfully colloquial prose. The chapters alternate between Zwilling, Horkow, Selva, and Barbara, and much of the book is devoted to extended sequences with minor characters who never appear again–a rabbi whom Horkow tries to snooker into a land deal, a pathetically self-important local drama teacher eager to get close to show business. Fairly important plot points–an estranged couple’s reconciliation, for example–happen between chapters and are related in passing as the new chapter begins, as if we’re already supposed to know. But Feld turns diffidence and indirection into a surprisingly rigorous aesthetic; he’s not so much muscling the reader toward a climax as he is gently urging the reader to see what might happen if we just go this way. My blunt explanation doesn’t capture the charm of this technique: without seeming to, Feld teaches us how to read him as we go along, by reinforcing our feeling that we’re part of the family of the book, privy already to its secrets.

Indeed, Zwilling’s Dream is surprisingly good humored and warm throughout, not just for the book’s secondary subject matters–inanition, Hollywood, middle-aged desire–but for literary fiction in general. The main subject here–and the chief success of the book, not so paradoxically–is an examination of failure and how to live with it; the way the characters talk about it, and confront the truth of failure, make up the small explosions of passion that illuminate their lives. Near the end, Polly, Zwilling’s daughter-in-law, confronts Zwilling with his own self-pity:

You do things and then withdraw them. You write something true and useful but surround it with such sick shit: a fake wife, fake dying, fake women, fake terrible guy, fake sex. You light a candle, then sit on it and snuff it out with your asshole…. But the reason I wanted you here with me today was so that you could see that something you wrote had a good effect for someone. What you wrote was true, for me at least it was. You don’t have much use for a truth once you’ve finished writing it down, do you? But somebody may.

It’s always risky to read autobiography into a novel, but this sounds to me like the author explaining something to himself. It breaks my heart to say it, but I hadn’t even heard of Feld’s work until I was asked to review this latest book. His first novel Years Out (1973) is a little too youthfully florid for my taste, but his two subsequent novels, Only Shorter (1982) and Shapes Mistaken (1989), are witty and compassionate character studies, shifting point of view among large casts of characters like one of the better Altman films. On his literary merit, Feld deserves to be as famous as the guy who wrote Cold Mountain; so what does it say about our boomtown literary culture than books this good can be so little known? Polly’s accusation, however–that Zwilling has no use for a truth after he’s written it down–gets at something more than mere commercial success or failure. Rather, she’s invoking the lack of faith in the worth of writing at all that haunts every writer–not just a lack of faith in selling a lot of copies, or in being able to reach an audience, but in simply getting across on paper what one originally had in mind.

Zwilling himself, even after Polly’s screed, seems to shrug and walk away from the whole problem, but his creator has provided, in this lovely book, his own affirmation of the worth of writing. Zwilling’s Dream does not come with climaxes or even a shattering epiphany, but it does take the reader through a series of beautifully crafted and wonderfully evocative human moments, toward a simple truth that even Zwilling would agree with: you take what comes, and you do the best you can.