Slow Fade by Rudolph Wurlitzer – review

This raucous story of an egomaniacal film director – thought to be based on Sam Peckinpah – is shot through with death, from the hippy trail to Hollywood

Slow Fade may have been published in 1984, but this short, potent novel about death and the movie business has the atmosphere of the 1960s about it: eclectic locations (India to Newfoundland via New Mexico and California), anarchic characters and, overall, it's a bit cracked.

The linchpin is control freak, drug-addled Hollywood director Wesley Hardin, a maniac and egomaniac, apparently based on legendary western auteur Sam Peckinpah. Wurlitzer had first-hand experience of his style: according to director Alex Cox, author of the introduction, Peckinpah "gutted" Wurlitzer's script of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

The book begins by following the eventful adventures of opportunistic roadie AD Ballou — who, in the first chapter, gets his eye shot through by a crossbow-wielding Native American when he strays on to the set of one of Hardin's films. However, the kernel of the story is Hardin's relationship with his children. His daughter Clementine, spirituality-seeking in India, got lost somewhere along the way, and Hardin has sent his drifting, trustafarian son Walker (and wife) to find her. Of the three, only Walker returns, too traumatised and too angry with his father to explain where his wife and sister are, or what happened.

To get to the bottom of the mystery, Hardin commissions a script from his son, hoping to get the story this way; he's unable to communicate through any other medium. As insurance, Hardin makes a deal with AD to babysit Walker: an eye, as it were, for an eye. As a setup, it's a promising one, and the book moves briskly between the script of Walker's disjointed memories of India and Hardin's battles with studios (and, indeed, everyone around him) to the ageing director's final acceptance of the slow fade.

It's not easy making such bombastic and extreme characters sympathetic, and Wurlitzer – perhaps to his credit – doesn't try. However, if, as Cox suggests, this is an axe-grinding pen portrait of a famous Hollywood director then Wurlitzer may have been a little ungracious in his choice of target. For looking at his backlist, the most recognisable and successful title is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: the one that Peckinpah, for all his faults, made famous.


Sophia Martelli

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño – review

There's never a dull moment in Roberto Bolaño's 1993 murder mystery, writes Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

28, May, 2011 @11:04 PM

Article image
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – review
Mary Elizabeth Braddon scandalised Victorian England with her bestselling murder mystery, writes Rhiannon Williams

Rhiannon Williams

05, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

The President by Georges Simenon – review
This 1958 novella is an astute psychological study of a politician in possession of the means to bring down a government, says Kristen Treen

Kristen Treen

11, Mar, 2012 @12:00 AM

Article image
The Pursued by CS Forester – review
CS Forester's long-lost 1935 revenge story is a little masterpiece, says Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

27, Oct, 2012 @11:06 PM

Article image
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue – review
Emma Donoghue's coming-of-age story of a teenage girl fending for herself in the 1760s exerts a considerable grip, writes Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney

17, Feb, 2013 @12:01 AM

Article image
Stoner by John Williams – review
John Williams's Stoner might have unremarkable subject matter, but it is so beautifully rendered that it's no surprise to see it getting a second chance almost half a century after publication, writes Simon Hammond

Simon Hammond

22, Jun, 2013 @4:00 PM

Article image
Dracula by Bram Stoker – review
Colm Tóibín's introduction to Bram Stoker's Dracula puts the work precisely into biographical and historical context, writes Anita Sethi

Anita Sethi

23, Jun, 2012 @11:03 PM

Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov – review
Nabokov's ingenious 1972 novella deserves to be read again in spite of some uncomfortable Lolita-esque passages, writes Sophia Martelli

Sophia Martelli

11, Nov, 2012 @12:03 AM

Article image
Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov – review
Vladimov's slender 1979 dissident novel is a masterclass in dark, ironic humour, writes Sophia Martelli

Sophia Martelli

19, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford – review
Nancy Mitford honed her satirical edge with this witty spy story written in the first days of the second world war, writes Helen Zaltzman

Helen Zaltzman

21, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM