kirkus reviews

'Player,' 'Prince' and 'World' give shout-out to sleazebags

Everybody loves a hero. Or an unglamorous average Joe with whom John Q. Moviegoer can identify. Not to mention a sensitive guy who is successfully in touch with his feminine side.

Creeps, sleazebags and outright villains might be more fun for actors to play, but they make film producers and moneymen understandably nervous. And Huds, Hannibal Lecters and Gordon Geckos don't come along that often. But when they do — as happens in three agreeably nasty current novels — it's time to crank up the camera and put out a casting call for intrepid character actors.

Michael Tolkin's acerbic 1989 novel "The Player" gave Robert Altman the source material for one of his best movies: a mordant satire on the self-destructive careerism of an ethically challenged film studio executive. In "The Return of the Player" (Grove, $24), aging golden boy Griffin Mill struggles with impending bankruptcy, dictatorial and deceitful industry insiders, the enmity of his unhappy wife and spoiled kids, and frustrating sexual dysfunction ("The distress of his situation made him impotent and he was allergic to Viagra").

The tale is told in a sardonic, bitterly funny omniscient voice that slips too often into haranguing vilification of Hollywood's shallowness and venality. (That's easily fixed: In the screenplay, kill the voice-over.) And the novel is filled with deliciously embarrassing scenes: Griffin's stinging, fateful meeting with venomous veteran director Warren Swaine; a scandalous display of bad parenting in a crowded department store; and an obscenely lavish bar mitzvah that might have been staged by Cecil B. DeMille.

The disintegrating character of Griffin — part romantic visionary, part calculating hustler — holds it all together. The Furies are hot on his trail, but he finds new worlds to exploit and has recouped, even increased, his fortunes. Best of all, Tim Robbins is just the right age to play him again. Here's hoping.

Another engaging illustration of career-minded amorality appears in Spanish journalist Juan Bonilla's mordant novel "The Nubian Prince" (Metropolitan/Holt, $24). Its title denotes the smoldering Perfect Specimen courted by "talent scout" Moises Calderon while in the employ of Club Olympus, an ostensibly "humanitarian" organization that recruits impoverished Third World beauties of both sexes and grooms them as "models" to serve the needs of wealthy clients.

The "Prince," who keeps body and soul alive in the festering metropolis of Malaga by participating in "extreme fighting," is a sculpted image of ideal male beauty, an emotionless killer and, as Moises painfully learns, much too proud to surrender his dignity without a fight.

Bonilla's novel features colorful locales, a tight and mercilessly logical plot as well as such vivid characters as Moises' alarmingly resourceful colleague (and former hooker) Luzmila, bisexual boy-toy Emilio and their brassy boss Carmen Thevenet (think Kathleen Turner), who warns Moises not to fall in love with any of the "pieces" but is herself not only head honcho but also a client. They all comprise a steamy little microcosm of exploitation and opportunism, and Moises' bedazzled immersion in it makes for a wild, perversely entertaining ride.

Another character you'll love to hate is Amos Prince, the truculent American architect whose crimes and misdemeanors in Mussolini's Italy are exhaustively delineated in Leslie Epstein's ebullient historical novel "The Eighth Wonder of the World" (Handsel Books/Other Press, $25.95). The title object is "a skyscraper, one mile high," which is the winning design among candidates for the task of building a memorial honoring the fascist dictator.

Epstein's dauntingly complex narrative encompasses vast swatches of historical and present time while filtering its central story through Amos' addled recollections and the more lucid ones of Max Shabilian, who, during a plane trip to Italy decades later, recalls his apprenticeship to the wily Amos (a compound of Ezra Pound and Frank Lloyd Wright), the genocidal threat then building in Mussolini's empire and a desperate plan to save Italy's Jews that backfired tragically, leaving Max to mourn his unintended victims and regret his ingenuous allegiance to what he now knows was the great architect's megalomania and madness.

The novel abounds with dramatic scenes, but its triumph is Amos: visionary genius, con man extraordinaire and deranged anti-Semite whose fury is captured in hilariously brutal intentional malapropisms (e.g., the allegation that FDR "wants the Jew-hated states to fight against our fast-shits"). He's a great, horrific character, and one shudders with pleasure envisioning him enacted by a cackling, silver-haired Robert De Niro or Anthony Hopkins. Talk about a wonder of the world …