The late Budd Schulberg: “Don’t meet your heroes”goes the saying, but Schulberg was able to turn his encounter with Fitzgerald into a very good novel indeed.
Hollywood, late 1930’s. Shep Stearns, budding screenwriter, is overjoyed and overawed to be taken on by Milgrim Pictures at $2,000 a week, to work on a script with his idol, the novelist Manley Halliday. A bestselling author lauded (and loaded) to the gills in the 1920’s, by the late 30’s Halliday has long gone quiet, and is glad just to be taken on to earn some money to try and pay off his extensive bills and buy some time to work on a novel in progress. Aged 40 (but feeling twice as old), diabetic, and desperately trying to keep on the wagon, this is nothing like the dream job for him that it is for Shep. Told to write a fluffy romantic musical comedy set at an Ivy League University, everything starts to go wrong once they head East to Webster College, supposedly to gather background information. Things aren’t helped by having the producer Victor Milgrim along with them (his eye is on an honourary degree, which he thinks the presence of the great Halliday will help him obtain). To add to the trouble a camera unit is also in tow, there to shoot some pick up footage as per a rough script from Stearns and Halliday. Shep’s initial hero-worship soon turns to disbelief and finally disenchantment when Halliday falls off the wagon, the script doesn’t get written and things go terribly and tragically wrong.
You probably know Schulberg for “On the Waterfront” and “What Makes Sammy Run”. Before he wrote that script, during his early Hollywood screenwriting days, he encountered F.Scott Fitzgerald, and Halliday is essentially a barely veiled portrait of the great writer in his latter years. This book is well worth seeking out if you admire Schulberg’s other work or are interested in what happened to Fitzgerald later on in his life and want a counterpoint to the novelist’s own writing about his ‘crack up’ phase and what came after. “The Disenchanted”, however, is well worth reading in its own right. The basic plot is very, very strong, and it’s a book you will want to read until the end since the main characters of Stearns and Halliday are well drawn, the kind most readers will want to get to know and understand. The relationship between the two men is very well described, and the way Shep’s early enchantment with his hero Halliday rapidly sours is convincingly handled.
That’s not to say I didn’t find the book without its faults. The start is rather drawn out, perhaps by design, since it depicts the slow, uncertain life of an aspiring screen writer, which seems to consist of a lot of hanging around waiting for a phone call (cue scenes of Shep Stearns staying up to all hours in a bar, waiting for a call from movie mogul Milgrim, a man who works odd hours and expects others to keep them too). Things really get going once Schulberg introduces Halliday and Milgrim. Halliday is clearly a very complex character, a man desperately trying to keep on the wagon in order to try and write another novel. As a depiction of a writer and an alcoholic it rings true. All that close up observation of Fitzgerald clearly helped, but it still needed Schulberg’s gifts to make Halliday a compelling character in his own right.
Later on, the escapades of the two writers on their fact-finding trip are similarly good, illustrating the changing relationship between the two. Shep began as idolising Halliday, but as mentioned this soon changes. Less engaging, I found, were the long flashbacks as Halliday went back over his rip-roaring 20’s glory years. Schulberg could have done with a better editor there and tried less hard to write like Henry James.
However, these are personal criticisms and other readers may think I’m too harsh. Ultimately, I think this book is a very strong study of two different ‘disenchanted’ characters: the once-great writer desperately trying to rekindle whatever made him great in the first place, and the young aspirant desperate to establish himself.
Given that the story is so strong, that it has cracking dialogue, and it’s a convincing study of two different characters, I think it’d make a great radio play. Any producers reading this then get in touch. I’d write it at the drop of a hat for you!