My comments on release of “Ticket to Hollywood,” by Gary Reilly. Dec. 3, 2012 at The Tattered Cover, Denver.
For those you who might know, Gary Reilly was a mentor to me. He was a tremendous editor and we had dozens and dozens of coffees and lunches together, chewing over plots and books we had read—or were in the process of writing.
Tonight, I thought I’d take a closer look at Murph and his love affair, much like Gary Reilly, with stories.
“A wondrous dream, a fantasy incarnate, fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand.”
That’s a quote from one of the world’s finest writers of fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa.
He’s referring to the ability to pick up a book and enter another world and another experience through the magic of prose.
I’ll repeat—fiction and stories complete us. We desire and dream of a thousand other parallel lives. Imagine a world without stories, without film. Impossible.
For Brendan Murphy, a.k.a, Murph, the stories are right there in the back seat of Rocky Mountain Cab #127. His passengers.
But Murph has a rule.
Says Murph: “My rule of thumb is to never get involved in the personal lives of my fares. My success rate is about as big as my thumb.”
“Ticket to Hollywood” is the second of 10 novels about Murph. I’ve had the pleasure of reading them all and the people he drives around are the steady source of tension, amusement, fantasy and, of course, predicament.
Being a taxi driver is one of those jobs, if you think about it, where you experience every form, shape and background of the human experience.
In “Ticket to Hollywood,” Murph gets tangled up in the family of a Denver filmmakers, giving him plenty of opportunity to revisit his ongoing battle with his ability—or inability—to produce a story worthy of the big publishers in New York or the filmmakers in Los Angeles.
Right from the first few moments of “Ticket to Hollywood,” Murph plunges headlong into the world of storytelling—and Murph has a chance to reveal that he knows his stuff.
“You have to understand. I love movies. The only thing I love more than movies is television. Flights of pure fantasy are not only important to me, they have helped me to avoid planning my future.”
On page one, Murph picks up a young woman dressed up as a flapper. She’s on her way to a film festival and a showing of The Great Gatsby.
She’s a bit drunk. Murph can smell vodka on her breath. She wants to go to “that place downtown” and Murph informs her she’s likely headed to The Flicker.
From “Ticket to Hollywood:”
“How did you know?” she said.
“A lucky guess,” I said. “You look like Zelda Fitzgerald.”
“Who?” she said.
I dropped my flag and pulled away from the curb. I had the feeling this was going to be a long five minutes.
“She was a flapper,” I said. “She was married to the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”
“Don’t you just love that movie?” she said.
“Love ain’t the word.”
“I’ve seen it fourteen times,” she said.
“That’s a lot of times to see a movie,” I said. “Did you ever read the book?”
I swallowed hard.
“The Great Gatsby,” I said. “It’s a novel.”
“Really?” she said. “I’ve never read a novel. I’m an actress.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. In my entire life I had never heard two sentences like that uttered consecutively.
Later, after Murph discovers that the flapper has left a wallet in the back seat of his taxi—and that the wallet is fat with big bills—he attempts to return it to the theater. But he’s stymied. The film festival has a rule that after the film starts, nobody else is allowed to enter. There’s a woman at the ticket booth and she is not amused by Murph’s request to go inside a look for the flapper. She is, in short, unflappable.
Here, in trying to talk his way past the cashier, we get a glimpse at Murph’s clear love of film—and stories—at all brow levels, both low and high.
Since I had already lost the battle and I knew it, I decided there was only one thing to do: put my sarcasm on full-automatic and go down sneering.
“We are talking Robert Redford here, you know,” I said.
One of her eyelashes batted.
I had drawn first blood.
“I mean I could understand if you were showing a Three Stooges marathon. But Bruce Dern? Karen Black? I could unleash a skunk in the theater and nobody would notice.”
She took her eyes off the money and looked at me. Her face was getting red.
I smiled wanly and said, “You do realize that the script was written by Francis Ford Coppola.”
She slapped her cash down and glared at me. “Nelson Riddle’s score won an Oscar.”
I took a hit, but it was a only a flesh wound.
I reached into my arsenal and pulled out my last big gun.
“Leonard Maltin gives it only one star.”
She slammed the cash drawer shut and pursed her lips.
I waited hopefully for her to say, “Do you want me to go get the manager?” but instead she raised a finger and pointed at the wall behind her. “Do you see that sign?”
It was a cardboard recapitulation of the nonsensical rule. It cut me off at the knees. I had no defense to counter her move because the rule was written in ink. The printed word is sacred to me because I’m an unpublished novelist. But let’s not get into that.
Of course, when Murph says ‘let’s not get into that’ we know that’s what is really on his mind—and throughout “Ticket to Hollywood” there is this powerful undertow about Murph’s analysis of his own writing skills and the fact that his output—to date—has amounted to a stack of unpublished novels in the bottom of his steamer trunk.
The steamer trunk is Murph’s demon. Yes, he rails against Rollo in the cage at dispatch. Rollo is his professional nemesis, the gatekeeper of rules of the taxi road. The steamer trunk is where Murph’s dreams rest—the dream of becoming a famous writer of books or screenplays.
Murph: “I ate my hamburger and did the dish, then I went into my living room and opened the steamer trunk where I keep my vast collection of unpublished, unpublishable, and uncompleted novels, as well as unsold screenplays. I DO have completed and uncompleted screenplays, but they both fall into the category of “unsold.” I’ve seen quite a few movies where the screenplays seemed to be in the “uncompleted” category yet still got sold and made into movies, so I generally refer to all screenplays as “sold” or “unsold.” But that’s just my own filing system. I’m sure Hollywood has a simpler system.”
Murph processes the failure to date with equal parts mirth and fatalism, but there’s no question the rejection stings.
“When I was just starting out as a failed writer I used to save all my rejection slips. This was a game I played, in the way that little kids like to play ‘grownup.’ I have played all the games that writers play. I hung onto the rejection slips because they seemed to possess some sort of significance that began to elude me as I grew older. I suspect that most beginning writers keep their rejection slips for the same reason that wounded soldiers keep spent bullets that are pried out of their bodies.
You would be hard-pressed to find a literary game that I have not played. Writers are a lot like people who go to the dog track. They have countless theories and systems of betting, but it all comes down to the same thing: when the dogs cross the finish line, somebody else gets published.”
Later, Murph shows us how his steamer trunk is organized.
“I keep my unsold screenplays on the right side of the trunk, and my unfinished novels on the left side. Then there’s my unpublishable novels which act as ballast at the bottom. I never look at the unpublishable novels anymore. Some of them are both uncompleted as well as unpublishable, which is like the red-hot core of magma at the center of the earth. I never descend to that level anymore—I almost died of asphyxiation one night reading a bottom manuscript that I had written in college. It was during my John Barth period.”
Throughout the series, Murph wrestles with the quality of his stories and he compares and contrasts his work to what he reads and watches in movie theaters and on television.
In one scene, he goes to the Ogden Theater to take in a few movies at the same film festival.
“I’m not going to tell you what the first seven films were about because, to my knowledge, I don’t have any deeply rooted psychological needs. I gave them seven thumbs-up. But I’m going tell you about The Man Who Crawled Across Denver because I guarantee that you will never see this movie anywhere. I won’t be giving anything away, especially the plot. The title pretty much says it all.
It was about this guy who got down on his hands and knees on a sidewalk at what I judged to be the intersection of Colfax and York, and started crawling west. He passed a lot of people but nobody paid any attention to him. There was a smattering of applause in the audience when he crawled past the Ogden Theater. He took a few detours and crawled past places like the D&F Tower and Union Station and other local landmarks. I couldn’t tell if the filmmaker intended that the audience believe he was crawling in a straight line, which he could not have done if he had crawled past those places, but I wrote that off as artistic license, i.e., show-biz. The man finally made it to west Colfax and Federal where he stood up.
I was particularly pleased by the fact that the movie made no sense. When I walked out of the Ogden I felt like a new man.”
That’s Murph in a nutshell—never discouraged, always looking for a ray of hope, perpetually fascinated by stories and plots as a path to success.
When Murph travels to Los Angeles in “Ticket to Hollywood,” he grabs a couple of screenplays from the steamer trunk. Just in case. I mean, you never know. He’s a writer. It might happen. He’s headed to Hollywood, the ultimate place where dreams can be fulfilled—or utterly squashed.
Murph is ever-hopeful and ever-optimistic despite complete awareness of the odds.
Near the end, he is driving around a neighborhood with ritzy houses and he’s surprised to find he’s not being observed or watched.
Here, Murph reveals he is still dreaming, still imagining that he will leave the cab driver ranks and become a member of the tribe he really wants to join, storytellers.
So picture our humble cab driver in a fancy neighborhood in Los Angeles, giant houses all around. Murph is circling the house in his rental car and Murph is still surprised nobody is watching.
And he thinks:
“Money does that to people, lulls them into a false sense of security. Or maybe it lulls them into an authentic sense of security. That’s plausible. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll let you know which way I’m lulled.”
So that brings me back to Gary Reilly, telling stories through his alter-ego Murph—entertaining us through his alter-ego, Murph.
Murph knew he had only one life and yet, as Llosa suggested, he desired a thousand other lives, particularly the life as a famous storyteller—if only one of those precious manuscripts in his steamer trunk would find its way to the right hands.
And then there’s Gary, who knew books and movies like nobody I’ve ever met. He knew, too.
I wish he could be here tonight to see that his stories are alive, entertaining us and helping us spend a few hours in the shoes of another, in this case one Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. Murph.
I hope you enjoy “Ticket to Hollywood.”
Thanks for coming tonight to support my pal Gary.
More on both of Gary’s titles here.