A review of Stardust, by Joseph Kanon
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Ben Collier, born Reuben Kohler, a German-American Jew raised in the film industry by his famous director father, leaves Germany in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War in Europe to visit his brother Danny, who lies in a coma in a Hollywood hospital. There, he finds himself embroiled in complex ways with Danny’s widow, Liesl, and the star-studded German emigre community in Southern California; with Danny’s seemingly impenetrable past; with Sol Lasner, head of one of the early Hollywood studios, and Lasner’s right-hand man, “Bunny” Jenkins, a former child star in England; and with a Right-Wing Congressman who stands in for Richard Nixon — not to mention assorted Communists, fellow-travelers, and the FBI in the era of J. Edgar Hoover. As the plot unfolds in all its complexity, the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
This brilliant novel, structurally a murder mystery, is better viewed as a compelling portrait of Hollywood in the days preceding the Blacklist. Kanon skillfully paints a canvas peopled by both real and imagined icons of the times, including movie stars such as Paulette Goddard in the foreground and Greer Garson, Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich in the background; the writer Ben Hecht; German emigres such as Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger; and a smattering of well-known studio heads and politicians. Even FDR gets into the act late in the game, however indirectly.
In the hands of a hack writer, this story could well have become unreadable. But Kanon infuses the tale with suspense that grows slowly and then at an accelerating rate as his self-doubting hero, Ben Collier, becomes enmeshed in the mystery. Kanon’s nuanced portraits of his characters bring them to life and make them difficult to ignore or forget: the talented and promising Jewish actress forced to the sidelines by the Red Scare; the aging, once-powerful studio head who is losing control of the company he founded; the closeted gay film executive caring for his gravely wounded lover; the brilliant German actress groomed for stardom on the fast track; the death camp survivor with eyes that never come to life. Every one of these and many other credible characters emerges from the pages of Stardust as multidimensional and profoundly human.
A former publishing executive, Kanon is the author of four previous novels. Among them are Los Alamos and The Good German, which later was adapted to film in a production starring George Clooney. Both books, like Stardust, are set in the years immediately following World War II and reflect Kanon’s considerable historical knowledge of the era.