"Heartland" is a long-running television western whose lead character is a hero whom audiences love to cheer for. Often, in these kinds of programs, the public confuses the actor with the role he plays --- and that's exactly what happens with the character of JayJay Parsons. Through the years, viewership has been shrinking for "Heartland" because actor Neil Townsend is gaining weight, boozing and exhibiting erratic behavior; he no longer looks like the manly winner-take-all hero.
The Centurion Studio hires a replacement actor, whose real name happens to be JayJay Parsons. JayJay can't explain where he came from; he just got off the bus and landed at the Studio. In an uncanny way he looks, walks and talks like the television character yet has never appeared on camera. The lead scriptwriter, Peter Caffrey, adds a romantic interest to the show, with Kelly Channing, a relatively inexperienced actor, assuming the role. Director Britt Turner has always worked in television and wants to direct feature films, but he never has had the chance. To every observer, "Heartland" is positioned for cancellation.
Early in the novel, JayJay befriends some Vietnamese Christians who invite him to live with them. Their Asian grandmother loves "Heartland" and has hated the decline of the show. Film student Ahn Nguyen ends up becoming JayJay's agent and negotiates his contract.
For almost 10 years, Davis Bunn has been on the inside of the motion picture and television industries. He uses this background to craft a well-told story with multiple threads. The dialogue is crisp, characterizations sharp, and plot vivid. One of the subplots revolves around Martin Allerby, Centurion's Studio Chief and Greenlight Man, and his director of sales, Milo Keplar, who are attempting to orchestrate a takeover of the studio. Allerby has no interest in "Heartland"; he is merely following orders from the majority owner of Centurion stock, Carter Dawes. The mysterious and elderly Dawes lives on a ranch, never comes to the studio and sends his attorney to board meetings to carry out his instructions.
Allerby directs the "Heartland" crew to create the studio's first feature film. However, they face a number of key challenges, as there's no script and they're merely writing as they go along, while the actors and those working behind the scenes are inexperienced. Almost everyone, including the "Heartland" cast, thinks they may get cancelled at any point in the process and not complete the project.
Then something new begins to stir, which Allerby has never seen before on a studio lot. The lead actor, JayJay Parsons, begins a prayer meeting and invites anyone in the cast and crew who would like to attend. These spiritual elements are woven into the fiber of this well-told story. Will the Christians be able to rise to these seemingly impossible challenges and succeed where others have failed?
Audiences love "Heartland" because the stories are predictable and good wins over evil. It's the behind-the-scenes drama that drives this novel and the uncertainty that the inexperienced cast and crew will succeed. I highly recommend this contemporary novel because of Bunn's engaging style and the fact that the unexpected twists and turns keep coming.
Reviewed by W. Terry Whalin on November 13, 2011