Friday, April 4, 2014

Destiny intersects with passion in FALLOUT, an elegant,sexy,novel of 1970's London theater

Sadie Jones' FALLOUT (4/29, Harper Collins) begins with young Lucasz Kanowski in 1961 and ends with him in 1975, and, though the novel's set in London, it's not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but the insular theater world. FALLOUT is a backstage story of  young talented theater people with the will and personality to transform the London theater. How this group matures, as artists and human beings, learning about love, their potentials and limitations, reflects an era of tremendous social and political change.

Yet this novel is more about the personal that the political, which separates it from novels about the 60's and 70's, such as Charles Degleman's Gates of Eden, in which the two are intertwined. Leigh, the stage manager in FALLOUT, is shaped by Feminism in her responses to men and her fury at commercial "randy" material that degrades women. But what makes Jones' novel original is her focus on time and destiny; how they can intersect in ways we call  fate.  

In the beginning of FALLOUT she telescopes time to show young Lucasz on the day he breaks his mother out of an asylum, taking her to London to see paintings. He passes Nina Jacobs, who's dealing with her own mercurial mother, when she sees the boy with the strange woman wearing galoshes. In that uncanny moment, recognition passes between them. This emotional sense memory at a critical age, she's 11, he a year older, proves indelible.

That same sense of destiny grips Lucasz in 1968, on a rainy street, when he meets Paul Driscoll, a fledgling producer, and Leigh Radley, a Cleopatra-eyed, stage manager. Lost in his provincial town on their way to meet a local playwright, they stop Lucasz fordirections. Though he doesn't know them, he senses these people are his friends. And, when he hears them talk about theater, he feels he's come home.

FALLOUT  traces Lucasz's instinctual journey to London in search of his future. Amazingly, he finds Paul, moves into his apartment and the two decide to form a theater company. Leigh joins them, sharing their vision of  socially relevant plays, from coal miners to an adapatation of Kafka's Penal Colony. The producer and the secret playwright, who gets a job chucking trash, form an emotional triangle with Leigh. Though intensely attracted to Lucasz, she becomes the girlfriend of the "safer" Paul. For Lucasz, who survived a traumatic childhood, it feels good just to live with people he admires. Eventually, the trio have a hit play that's a critical success.

Parallel to their rise in the theater is that of Nina. The daughter of a bit part actress, always on the make for opportunities and men, which to her are often the same. Despite Nina's emotional fragility, she becomes an actress and is set on a path for success. But commercial theater is far from the search for meaning that drives Paul and Lucas' enterprise. And then she is mentored by a sleazy producer. Tony's almost a steriotype of the drug-taking, sexually excessive producer. Ambitious and driven, he's skilled at exploiting emotional vulnerability, as well as making money and building his prestige with the press. He rises in commercial theater, as does Nina, for whom he finds the perfect vehicle. She becomes a star but feels a prisoner in her marriage to this man.

When she and Lucasz again meet, he's a "hot" new  playwright and it's the attraction of sameness. Both are talented yet suffer emotional pain. Great passion is ignited that quickly threatens hard-won professional success, social status, and ultimately, their hold on sanity. What saves FALLOUT from romance cliches is how adept Jones is at showing kinds of ability and vulnerability. While Nina and Lucasz are similarly at risk, Paul and Leigh are better able to protect themselves. But their ability to "play it safe," becomes a different kind of pathology--a love more about service than affinity.

These nuances of character ring true and help with the authenticity of a familiar back stage story. Yes there's the ingenue that becomes a star but she's got an individual sensibility that makes you understand her strength and fear for her fragility. In Lucasz, the playwright, Sadie Jones creates a vision, that crosses Stoppard and Beckett and yet has a humor that goes with the character. Paul is also a person I might have met, a modest hard worker with a passion for his art form but he's so solidly middle-class you respect his values. Leigh is perhaps the most original creation. The daughter of a groundbreaking feminist, she must navigate between that ideology and the second class status of women, not just in theater but her era. Her tireless ingenuity, practical anger and uncompromising intelligence, make her transformation the one most unexpected and desired.

I found this book a wonderful read. Surprising depth of character, accidents of fate that feel like life, and emotional FALLOUT that heralds new maturity, make this a very satisfying novel. There's also lots of fun inside theater here for anyone who's had a creative life in the theater or just been a young artist.

S.W.