Book Review: Celluloid Strangers by Eric Wasserman
Well, not me exactly — but my namesake. Joe Gandelman (a different one, assuredly not as good-looking, wise or modest as me) was killed off in a great book I found by accident in one of my periodic searches on Amazon.com to see if there is anything with the name “Gandelman” on the market. I then stumbled upon Eric Wasserman’s superb novel “Celluloid Strangers” by accident on Amazon — and it turned out to the most delightful find ever.
The reason: Celluloid Strangers is a novel that’s absolute nirvana for ANYONE who loves books, movies or TV shows about organized crime, “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos,” Hollywood, the movie studios and their bosses in the 20th century and McCarthy era blacklisting. It’s top-notch and fast-paced writing that (no joke) makes the tired cliche “you can’t put it down” reality by vividly bringing alive the story about the four Gandelman brothers from the northeast, who went onto become a lawyer, a mobster, a screenwriter, and a shopkeeper after settling in Los Angeles after World War II.
It’s authentically exciting, moves as swiftly as a bullet train, and painstakingly researched and crafted. Wasserman has made it clear that it is not intended to be a history (liberties are taken) but for those fascinated with 20th century California, the old Hollywood Studio system that manufactured star images and protected stars, the sometimes corrupt Hollywood studio heads, mob-linked labor unions, organized crime and the assimiliation of immigrant families it’s the book you’ve been seeking for many years. I originally bought this book thinking, “Oh well, I’ll read it because it’s one of the few collections of pages about Gandelmans that I’ve seen since I thumbed through my bills for my taxes.” But it turned out to be one of my all time favorite novels — and I do NOT read a lot of fiction.
Fiction often loses me when writers get so wrapped up in their own writing style and words that they lose sight of plot and character. Celluloid Strangers works on so many levels: as a novel for entertainment, an example of fine writing, and a role model for writers who want to do novels that are compelling and accessible and communicate content versus writers’ ego. I enjoyed this so much I’m now carrying while on the road Wasserman’s earlier published work, a book of short stories.
Celluloid Strangers is also fascinating stylistically: it blends straight narrative, flashback, and (fictional) “transcripts” from House Unamerican Activities hearings as devices to make the mix compelling, gripping and highly accessible. Here’s an interview with Wasserman talking about his book and his characters. Here’s an excerpt from his book.
Wasserman and his book deserve the praise received such as this:
“Rich in detail, atmosphere, insight, and info. For readers who crave a thick slice of L.A. lore and Hollywood noir as tasty as James Ellroy—but without the hysterics—Celluloid Strangers will satisfy. Eric Wasserman conveys the kick and curse of history and the grit of real life, along with the arc of a dark fable. A big, wise novel to lodge in the head and the heart.”
—Wesley Strick, author of Out There in the Dark and screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear
“Celluloid Strangers wonderfully evokes a time and place in American life: Los Angeles before and after the HUAC hearings, blacklistings, and betrayals. It is rich in the way good novels are rich—in character and in story—and while it tellingly reminds us of why Hollywood looms so large in our lives, it also movingly depicts the dark underside of glitz and glamour. Eric Wasserman is a splendid novelist who has constructed a unique, memorable tale.”
—Jay Neugeboren, author of The Stolen Jew, 1940, and Before My Life Began
“With his big, ambitious, richly historical, and compulsively readable first novel, Eric Wasserman has delivered a knockout punch of a book. Celluloid Strangers puts our obsession with Hollywood in precise and intimate terms. Readers will relish its deeply moving story and remember it long after the final pages have been turned.”
—Frederick Reiken, author of Day For Night and The Lost Legends of New Jersey(less)
In fact, Celluloid Strangers deserves much more praise. And more than praise.
Celluloid Strangers deserves to be made into a movie.
And, if it is, I know of someone who can audition for the part of the older Joe Gandelman….
On a TMV scale of one to five, Celluloid Strangers gets FIVE STARS.