Recall Jack Lipnick, Michael Lerner’s monstrous studio executive in the Cohen brothers’ masterpiece “Barton Fink”: his titanic self-regard, his operatic wheedling. Recall the harrowing poolside scene where Lipnick, a dynamo even in pink swimming trunks, coos barbed blandishments at Fink while terrorizing his assistant, Lou Breeze, whom he orders to kiss Fink’s feet — and he does!
Might he have been bipolar? Greyson Todd, the manic studio executive at the center of screenwriter Juliann Garey’s debut, “Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See,” shares some of Lipnick’s traits: His anger shakes the walls and he can melt rocks with his charm. Early in the first-person novel, Todd explains why his personality is suited to his job: “My work as a studio executive demands a tremendous amount of social intercourse, the appearance of impeccable interpersonal skills, the ability to read the room better and faster than anyone, to negotiate the situation graciously and ruthlessly to my advantage.”
As mood disorders go, bipolar has its advantages. But what enhances Todd’s career also curtails it. When maintaining the façade of sanity proves too difficult, he abandons his job, his wife, and his young daughter to embark on an anonymous, thrill-seeking trot around the globe during which he travels to evermore dangerous countries while engaging in increasingly risky sexual assignations. The novel begins a decade later with a nurse taping Todd’s eyelids shut for a round of electroshock therapy.
If his actions are Lipnick, Todd’s voice is pure Robert Evans, at least the one the “Chinatown” producer uses in his memoirs and the documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” one of a wry, self-aggrandizing, and self-deprecating tough-guy charismatic who is occasionally self-aware but at most times, dizzyingly not. Most of his dialogue is unprintable in a family newspaper. (The reader alternately hopes and fears that Garey has encountered people like this in her career as a screenwriter.) Garey lightens a depressing plot with clever, often funny film references, the best of these finding a deranged Todd screaming “Taxi Driver” quotes as he bottoms out in New York.
As a child growing up in Southern California, Todd despises his feckless father, also bipolar, whose manic spending has impoverished the family. He reveres his put-upon mother, an assistant librarian whose taste credentials are established when she gives her 12-year-old son a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” in 1957: “She said most people didn’t appreciate Salinger yet, but someday they would and I could say I read him way back when.”
In spite of his penurious childhood, Todd bootstraps his way into Stanford and becomes an ace film agent, babysitting inebriated actors and wooing top-drawer talent. But after his meteoric rise to power, the pressures of running a studio and raising a little girl become too much to bear. Todd strikes off for continents afar and drinks far too much in each. By the time he returns to the States, Todd is so depraved that the reader feels relief when he is finally hospitalized.
Garey’s descriptions of the thoughts and actions of someone suffering from bipolar disorder are genuinely scary, and Todd’s recollections of his studio days are equally strong. The novels best scene takes place at a cocaine-fueled Oscar party where he trades confidences with a frighteningly jaded child star.
But Garey falters when she writes about Todd’s family. Her descriptions of his feelings toward his wife, daughter, and parents can be two-dimensional and mawkish. The novel’s worst scene concerns a childhood fishing expedition to the Santa Monica pier, during which Todd’s father delivers this whopper: “Greyson, you are very lucky. Not everyone can feel things as deeply as you. Most people, their feelings are . . . bland, tasteless. They’ll never understand what it’s like to read a poem and feel almost like they’re flying, or to see a bleeding fish and feel grief that shatters their heart.”
Luckily, this thread comprises only about a third of the novel. The rest of the time, Garey delivers a genuinely harrowing story that, against all odds, is deeply enjoyable. A good thing, too: Beware the Lipnicks of the world when they don’t get their due.