Review

The Return of the Player

by Michael Tolkin



Fans of Michael Tolkin's 1988 novel THE PLAYER and the 1992 Robert
Altman film based on that story will greet the return of its
antihero Griffin Mill with enthusiasm, while new readers will find
themselves engaged by this entertaining black comedy set in the
surreal world of present-day Hollywood.

Having literally gotten away with murder in THE PLAYER, one might
think that 52-year-old Griffin Mill would be grateful to be a free
man, recommending scripts for new movies in his $1.5 million-a-year
studio executive job and living with his former mistress, Lisa, now
his wife and mother of his third child. Instead, he's tormented by
the implosion of his net worth to a mere $6 million in the dotcom
bust, and his vanished libido, made even more troubling by his
allergy to Viagra. He's also haunted by a free-floating malaise
that oscillates between the poles of personal anxiety and worry
about mankind's slide toward inevitable catastrophe. "This is it?"
he muses, reflecting on the emptiness of his life. "Right turns on
red light, homework, some kind of accommodation with death, some
kind of theology to overcome envy, some kind of gesture in the
direction of making the world better, a little charity, and, other
than that, trying not to let your bad feelings spoil someone else's
day or --- not anything so remote as a day --- a minute, a
moment."

In desperation, Griffin hatches a scheme to ingratiate himself with
Phil Ginsberg, a mysterious self-made media entrepreneur and "the
most purely frightening person Griffin knew in Hollywood." Ginsberg
suffers from his own financial angst: he wants to turn a fortune of
a mere $750 million into a meaningful $4 billion so that, if he
chooses, he can "buy ten fighter jets and make war on Guatemala."
Griffin attracts his attention by making an extravagant and nearly
unaffordable gift to the private school fundraising campaign
Ginsberg is spearheading and shows he's even willing to kill again
to achieve his goals.

But instead of offering Griffin a conventional job, Ginsberg gives
him an enigmatic secretary and places a rocking chair in an office
with no phone, no computer, not even a desk. "I want you to think
about things that I can't even imagine," he says. "I want you to
look at your life, your own life, as the life of the world." He
encourages Griffin to bring to bear his movie world experience to
"look for a story," hoping that Griffin will help him find a
"bruised business" he can transform into a source of vast wealth
for both of them.

Meanwhile, Griffin's home life is unraveling even faster than his
professional one. He fantasizes about sex with his ex-wife, June,
who visits Goth dance clubs and flirts with Mormonism. And he's
forced to deal with the consequences of Lisa's titanic meltdown
when their daughter Willa throws a temper tantrum during a routine
shopping trip. The episode threatens to derail Griffin's budding
career and inspires June to propose a new domestic arrangement
that, despite its oddity, somehow brings about marital
harmony.

For all his faults, Griffin is a surprisingly sympathetic
protagonist. His first foray into the world of entrepreneurial
capitalism is discouraging, but it's hard not to root for the kind
of happy ending that was a staple of the Hollywood scripts he'd
been reading for a quarter century. While it's debatable whether or
not the results of Griffin's efforts are truly earned, they're
consistent with the rules governing a world that's sharply observed
and skillfully portrayed in this novel.

Tolkin resists the temptation of some satirists to take potshots at
easy targets, yet he's not afraid to paint a broad comic picture
when it's warranted. Among such portraits, the "Fiddler on the
Roof" themed bar mitzvah of Ginsberg's son --- the highlight of
which is a speech by the bar mitzvah boy that is without parallel
in the annals of Judaism --- is full of outrageous humor.

The ending of THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER, featuring a delightful
cameo by a politician well known for his Hollywood connections,
provides ample fodder for a sequel that, if it's written someday,
no doubt will please Tolkin's readers as this novel will do. It
will be fun to watch Tolkin bring his satirical sensibility to bear
on a profession even riper for skewering than Hollywood: the world
of big-time politics.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

The Return of the Player
by Michael Tolkin

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802143024
  • ISBN-13: 9780802143020