07 Feb 2006
We’ve been coughing pretty heavily around the book review department from the smoke and mirrors surrounding “The Big Picture” by Douglas Kennedy. Although we weren’t favored with anything more than the book, the bigger media outlets have been flooded with goodies from Kennedy’s publisher, Hyperion, including unbound manuscripts, “evidence bags” containing an “Advance Reader’s Edition” and a panegyric signed by Hyperion chief Bob Miller, and brochures featuring the starred review from Publishers Weekly (their unsigned reviewer panted that “There is a lot of excitement in the air about Kennedy’s novel and it is thoroughly justified”).
Even 250 disposable cameras with “THE BIG PICTURE” printed on it were sent to magazine and newspaper editors and bookstore buyers.
All this is in service to a book with a lot of cash backing it. The manuscript by Kennedy, an American writer living in London these past two decades, fetched more than $1.1 million. The Disney-owned publisher announced a first printing of 300,000, and a $750,000 promotional campaign featuring newspaper ads, nationwide television spots, even a 30-second movie trailer.
You would have thought it was Jesus’ memoirs Hyperion was selling, or at least “Gone With the Wind III.” But “The Big Picture” weaves the thriller genre with the currently fashionable angst of those who can afford to drop $23.95 on a book everyone should be talking about: “Men Who Have Too Much And It’s Still Not Enough.” Kennedy opens his opus by unveiling the inner life of one Ben Bradford, who lives with his wife and two children in their $450,000 colonial outside New York City. He’s a Wall Street lawyer pulling down $315,000 a year dealing with wills and estates, but his real love is photography, a profession he wanted to enter but for his Type A father, who bullied him into entering law school instead. So instead of taking Pulitzer-Prize winning photos in Bosnia, Ben indulges his hobby with the most expensive equipment his gold-plated lifestyle can afford.
But despite all this, he’s not happy. He’s in a job he hates, he’s married to a woman who hates him, and he’s stressed because his infant son has kept him from a night’s sleep for the last 20 weeks.
This is the land settled by John Cheever and John Updike, but their protagonists never dealt with their defeats and disappointments the way Ben Bradford does. When he discovers that his wife is having an affair with the ne’er-do-well photographer down the street, Ben flips out and smashes the cur’s head in with an especially fine New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Then, imaging a future featuring a divorce, no job and a long stretch in the pen, he cuts and runs. Lost in suburbia one moment, he plans his escape with a cunning and intelligence as if he’s Tom Cruise of the Impossible Mission Force. He freezes his rival’s body, takes a Black & Decker circular saw to him, smuggles the pieces on board a borrowed yacht, and blows it up at sea using a recipe from The Anarchist’s Cookbook culled off the Internet.
Pausing just long enough to borrow the man’s identity, he lights out for the frontier, in this case, a small town in Montana that’s been infected with what the locals call “Californication,” where the new arrivals from the West Coast bring their money, their coffeehouses and art galleries, and their propensity for buying up all the land in sight. There, while living off the murdered man’s trust fund, he builds on his borrowed identity and attempts to live his dream of being a photographer.
The opening chapters are especially tough sledding, since Kennedy piles on Ben every possible source of angst — the bitching wife, the screaming kid at 2 a.m. with diarrhea leaking out his diapers, the memories of the youthful lover who achieved her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, while he became just another lawyer who takes pictures for fun — in an attempt to win our sympathy. But Ben is so wealthy, has so many possessions and is such a wimp that it’s impossible to feel sympathy for him.
It also doesn’t help that Ben is a self-obsessive jerk who abandons his children (but he feels sorry for them), twice murders (all right, the second time was really an accident, but it’s so coincidental that he should get charged with it anyway), lies and steals. And we’re supposed to admire him for it? I don’t think so.
Kennedy wants us to think about how we live the life we have, rather than the life we want. The trouble is that this contradicts the story. Examining issues of escape and life are themes best suited for literary novels, not for books where the proper application of explosives helps a man follow his bliss. This contradiction turns “The Big Picture” into an intellectual masquerade, a jumped-up penny-dreadful wrapped in “profound issues” intended to make the reader feel like he’s gaining a measure of insight, and not just being (heaven forbid!) entertained. If you can get past Ben Bradford’s toxic whining, you’ll find underneath a fast-moving, sometimes tense story, that does for wish-fulfilling males what “The Bridges of Madison County” did for romance-starved females.
Give Virginia Woolf a room of her own; I want a circular saw.