Vaughn Meader is screwed, again: JFK's tragic impersonator is exploited for laughs.
Jason Anderson's debut novel, Showbiz, is a whimsical roman a clef involving fictionalized characters and events inspired by the Kennedy era. The story follows journalist Nathan Grant, who lives in roughly our present day, as he prepares a profile of Jimmy Wynn, a character based on the 1960s stand-up comic Vaughn Meader. A popular impersonator of John F. Kennedy, Meader, who passed away in October 2004, achieved reflected fame from the subject of his routine. (Kennedy reportedly greeted a group from the Democratic National Committee by saying "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight so I came myself.") Nevertheless, his status did not survive the president's assassination. Nobody wanted Meader's schtick after Dallas, and he spiralled into oblivion and heroin addiction, appearing in the 1974 movie Linda Lovelace for President and later on a Rich Little record as if to italicize his own decline.
Vaughn Meader makes a great case study of pop culture's engagement with celebrity, an often tragic symbiosis. Here is a man who aped celebrity to gain it, then died alongside it. Jimmy Wynn scans the same way, although with little tragic resonance because of how his tale is fictionalized. In Showbiz, whimsy often overpowers plausibility. So we read that Wynn was the warm-up act for Lenny Bruce, although Bruce and Meader would have been as unlikely a co-bill as Sonny Bono and Jim Morrison. Or that Grant himself is on assignment for The Betsy, a glossy monthly we are to believe is still stylishly devoted to the gossipy nuances of a presidency now 40 years in the past.
These head-scratchers accumulate until the reader is forced to consider that maybe they are the point. Fame and celebrity, the book's core concerns, do frequently appear governed by causal relationships different from those that confine the rest of us. Regrettably, profiler Grant seems ignorant of these issues. Showbiz takes repeated pains to point out that this young man is not well suited to journalism. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing." "I wasn't sure what else to say so I made do with, huh." "I thought: even now you sound like a fake." "I thought: you are in the grip of forces far beyond your ken." "I saw myself as I assumed they saw me: a disfigured young drip who behaved as if he was afraid of his own shadow."
Well, he said it. But Grant in the throes of imposter syndrome is only one half of his default state. The other is a reductive quippishness with which any situation of heightened emotion may be, through application of sarcasm, rendered safely irrelevant. This defence mechanism is common among post-collegiate males like Grant, and Showbiz captures this anxiety-riddled arrogance perfectly. Grant has an unrequited crush: "Lord how I pined." Grant prepares his critical story pitch for The Betsy: "blinding in its magnificence. Angels would have wept at the sight." Grant on his Wynn research: "I suddenly had the urge to do something manlier than rifling through decades old paperwork." Grant on his own profile subject: "the universe had stuck a fork in his ass and said he was done."
Whether this amuses you or drives you screaming from the room, Grant should not obscure what Showbiz does well. For those who have spent time listening to 1960s-era comedy on vinyl, the original Wynn act rings very true. Grant puts the needle down on A Square Peg in the Oval Office--"and here's your comedy Commander in Chief, JIMMY WYNN!"--and the edgeless half-yuks that follow are note-perfect. You can practically see the living rooms with the plastic-covered furniture into which Wynn would have been playing. Likewise, Grant in Vegas watches Danny Pantero doing his show--complete with Elvis Time and the Gift of the Scarf--and it is clear that Showbiz speaks fluent Wayne Newton without an accent.
Grant's confused engagement with his own subject becomes a bigger obstacle, however, as the narrative builds to the scattered, high-lunacy of the book's final third. The Betsy editor Winston Sharpe is a member of a secret committee knocking off people who know too much about this long-ago president's last days. Wynn, who the president apparently asked to be his double at one point although not on the day he was killed, is on the list and is warned by Grant, who learns this from Sharpe, although Wynn still gives a goodbye show when he knows there are assassins in the audience and is killed or is possibly not killed. ("The sound of a shot cleaved the air.")
Problems arise here because, by forcing us to consider why any of this is happening, the narrative runs an inevitable collision course with the events of November 11, 1963. And here we get a one-paragraph treatment of Gael Martinez, who is Lee Harvey Oswald in the book. ("His mother said he loved to laugh.") Two lines on a rogue element within the CIA driving the whole process. A single, very unfortunate line suggesting the metaphoric power of funny men/straight men duos--the "smooth yin and nutty yang"--to explain the relationship between Martinez-who-is-Oswald and a second gunman on the grassy knoll. Showbiz might flip the bird at the moment of impact, but there are no survivors.
Not to suggest that these historical events demand unswerving straight-faced treatment. Lenny Bruce famously started the laughing less than 24 hours after Kennedy was dead by stepping onstage at the Village Theatre in New York and saying "Vaughn Meader is screwed." (An anecdote repeated in the book as if readers wouldn't see the punch line coming.) It is only to say that the book re-renders a set of 20th century tragedies in farcical tones: Kennedy's assassination, of course, but also the reflected and protracted celebrity death of Vaughn Meader thereafter. What does Grant learn from his fictionalized quest into real-life events? And if nothing, what do we see him missing, beyond his re-screwing of Vaughn Meader by fictional proxy?
I don't know. And although I am sure Anderson would have a good answer, I can't read through Nathan Grant to find it. I can't decipher the feelings or insights of a man who utters the following compulsive irony after Wynn is shot in a tacky Canadian casino: "I had infected this place of happy beavers and helpful Mounties. I was a harbinger of death and destruction. I was a horseman of the showbiz apocalypse." Who believes this exactly, in order that we might direct our amusement? Grant? Anderson? And if neither, then ...?
Whimsy has to be the hardest tone to strike and hold in literature, however much pop culture encourages this light, disconnected state of mind. It demands you work in zero gravity, where action and understandable human motive are decoupled. And for this reason alone, it is not particularly conducive to a discussion of fame and celebrity. Because however mysterious the Machinery of Fame might be, however hid-den the formula by which "it" is calculated and dispensed and withdrawn, there is a machinery somewhere hidden, governed by old pushes and ancient pulls. And Showbiz is not very showbiz without them.
Timothy Taylor is the author of four books, most recently the novel Story House (Knopf, 2006).
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|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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