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The Holly Brown Chronicles

The Holly Brown Chronicles

Jes Alexander (Editions Rue de l'Opera et Cie 2010, Trade Paperback) 286 pages, 16.60 euro cover price

Before anyone says a word, Jes Alexander is the publisher of Herald de Paris, a great and smart on-line news journal for which I am delighted to serve as a regular correspondent and reviewer. If anyone thinks that has in any way weighted my opinion, you obviously don't know me. If you do know me and think that, I'm popping you one in the jaw.

I've had the sad fortune to review a play directed and produced by two of my dearest friends and pan it. I have also said of the city where I live that if it was vaporized by aliens the only way the absence would be noticed was when motorists wondered where all the gas stations went.

So there is not a word below that is not my honest, professional opinion. Sorry about your jaw. Read on.

                              - H

Kids, you're probably going to have to ask your grandparents about this one; or if that price is too much to pay I want you to watch a couple of those old movies on Turner Movie Classics. Yes, the black and white ones. The ones with words.

There used to be this thing, this strange concept called wit. It's just as laugh-provoking as modern day fart and feck (I'm Irish) jokes, except there's a certain difference of response. A witty line makes one think, 'I wish I'd said that.' If one says that aloud and there is a wit standing nearby, that person will say, 'Don't worry, you will.' That is wit, and a famous true story involving the incorrigible joke-stealer Milton Berle. Berle liked the story so much, it became part of his act. He stole a joke about his stealing jokes.

And that too is a slight illustration of the ridiculousness of television and modern celebrity. For all we truly know, when Fred Allen, Jack Benny or Jackie Gleason (accounts vary) dropped that line on Berle...they may never have said it. It might have all been a good one a publicist fed to Walter Winchell.

I'm not so sure how familiar the reader of this review may be with the terms 'work' and 'shoot', so I'll spend a paragraph on them. The Holly Brown Chronicles brilliantly exposes the concepts, without using that terminology.

They are old carny terms for the con games manned by hucksters and later became absorbed into professional wrestling. A shoot is anything real and legitimate - an honest card game, an unfixed fight. A work is anything designed to appear to be real, while being completely scripted. Absolutely everything you see on television is a work. I have covered the industry for eleven years' now through a weekly television column (archives here) and I am convinced of that. Even the news, even the news on legitimate news services is presented in a way to provoke a response in you...usually involving your buying something, but that's a story for another day.

The Holly Brown Chronicles gets it and gets it right in a bullseye shot by a narrow calibre rifle shot of smart, sharp, crackling wit. It was fantastic timing frankly. The evening before my copy of Jes Alexander's book arrived at the house, I'd been having an email back-and-forth with a novice writer who wanted to build a career as an author of comedy novels. I encouraged him, for as long as Peter De Vries remains dead, there's an opening in the field. For there are far fewer out-and-out funny novels being written than you would think. It's as though all the funny writers migrated to movies and TV. Nah. Can't be. I've seen movies and TV.

We should get the story out of the way so we can get to talking why a writer like Jes Alexander should be massively read and treasured, particularly as Dorothy Parker remains dead.  Holly Brown is 40, an interior designer who has just left her firm because  she got fed up with the office dress code that made her feel like a corporate prostitute. Because she has time and a severance package, she redecorates her rural Connecticut home. Rural Connecticut homes are traditionally fine places for comedy - Bringing up Baby, the farm that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn own in Adam's Rib, Christmas in Connecticut obviously, it's a long list.

Holly - tall, slim, attractive, divorced - uploads pictures of her renovated home onto her web page. From there very thinly disguised versions of Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey notice Holly's work and want to hire her. Complications arise.

The novel absolutely blossoms and glows in the central portion where Holly does become an insta-celebrity, or 'It girl' because of being seen in completely scripted appearances with an attractive actor. This is where I found myself grinning from ear-to-ear. I know better celebrity stories than I can tell, yet I will vouch that Jes Alexander captures this strange weightless life where ostensibly everything is done for you, while you get very little say in what is done for you.

And oh my there are some sparkling lines delivered along the way, all in a voice that begs for Myrna Loy or Carole Lombard to say them. This is just a minor sample - I hate giving away the biggest laughs in a review. Holly is assigned a personal assistant named Sandi who looks 20 and is now 45.  Sandi stays at the famous Holly house and when in the morning Holly sees her guest making coffee and comments, "I see you met Monsieur Cellini," Sandi thinks Holly meant the cat.

"No, that's Murphy. This is HER house. Monsieur Cellini is my espresso machine. When you live alone in the country, you make friends with your appliances, just to keep sane. Tell me - you could smell the beans through the freezer door, couldn't you?"

And that too is how a witty line should be delivered, whether in person or in print. It should never be followed by a pause, for that is a desperate wait for a laughing reaction that never comes. No no no - you drop the bomb, then move on. That way an energy flow of humour is created and the laughs themselves will come more easily.

I actually did laugh out loud at The Holly Brown Chronicles and I'm ashamed to say that I'm usually a lousy audience. However, there is more going on here than just TV parodies. Holly's long-deceased father, 'The Jack' still haunts her. Jack Brown comes off as a blend of Jackie Kennedy's father Black Jack Bouvier and Phil Graham, the suicidal heir of The Washington Post in the 50s and 60s. He was a famed adventurer, a restless soul and celebrity, who drowned one day while diving. On the one hand Holly never wants to be like Dad...on the other hand we are our father's children. My father was a newspaper columnist for 30 years and a holy terror for longer than that. Trust me, Jes Alexander got the parent-child internal shadow relationship perfectly drawn.

While The Holly Brown Chronicles is the best TV novel I have ever read, and the funniest novel I have read in the last year, I do have three criticisms. One is actually a strength. When Holly starts to want to say whoa to the celebrity machine, I wish that there had been a stronger inciting force. I don't want to start screaming out plot details, so let me put it this way. I wish Holly herself had done something nasty to someone, or at the very least considered it strongly. I think that additional two or five pages would have strengthened Holly's turn.

Alexander has a great ear for dialogue. Having a great ear for dialogue means that you know how to edit out the unnecessary bits and leave the entertaining bits. This the author does beautifully, so I felt a bit let down when French characters are introduced and they speak like extras from 'Allo, 'Allo complete with 'zee' instead of 'the'. The lines are fine, it's just the punctuation that gets in the way.

Oh, and I positively hated the last line. Just take a marker to it. I'd already hoped there would be a follow-up, but to use a mysterious cliffhanger? Naughty! This novel doesn't need the trick of the tail to succeed.

Lastly, I have a very dear friend who is wickedly smart and gloriously cynical, while also somehow being an Earth Mother type. I'm very careful what books I suggest to her as what's the point of having a friend if you're going to waste their time and shoot yoiur own reputation all to hell? I'm loaning her The Holly Brown Chronicles. She'll love it.

Be seeing you.


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