First off, let me say that Benjamin Svetkey’s debut novel, Leading Man, is not the type of book that I usually read. Normally, I reach for heady modernist novels that leave you haunted by the impossibility of everyday existence. But that’s just me. Leading Man on the other hand, is more in the vein of Nick Hornby (at least that’s what the press release says); the book seems like it would work well on the big screen.
Leading Man examines both the nature of fame and what it is to truly love someone; or at least that’s what it aims for. Drawing on his own experiences as a longtime writer for Entertainment Weekly, Svetkey tells the story of Max Lerner, a Hollywood reporter who has his childhood sweetheart Samantha (aka Sammy) stolen from him by his childhood hero—action star-cum-serious leading man, Johnny Mars.
Throughout the novel, Max continuously schemes to break up Sammy’s marriage to Johnny Mars and get her back in his arms. Max wrestles with his feelings about Sammy, his former hero, the Hollywood game and the nature of fame, all while bedding a stream of beautiful women described as having “perfect breasts” or who are “knockout fashion stylists.” This soul searching amid casual sex is periodically broken up by the struggles he faces with his day job interviewing quirky and sometimes demanding celebrities.
To be fair, Max does self-deprecate and explain that he has never been “the kind of smoothie who could reel a girl in from five bar stools away with a slick line and wink”; but that doesn’t stop him from coming off as merely a generic, somewhat womanizing, bro. Which is a problem, because as a reader you want to root for Max in his search for maturity and what it takes to truly love someone.
Svetkey is capable writer. He doles out his plot just enough to keep the reader hooked, and his fictional version of Hollywood brims with well-observed details—especially the character of Alistair Lyon, who serves as a Greek chorus in the form of a Daniel Day Lewis caricature. However, the prose is limited. The story twists and turns (in an especially true and smart way at the very end), but Max, Svetkey’s slightly melancholy, searching, narrator, never actually makes you feel sympathy for his pain. Even if the novel does conclude on a nice, slightly out of character, grace note.
But this is a book all about love, Hollywood, love in Hollywood, and fame. Maybe the point is to not think so much and just wait for the movie to come out On Demand.