By Todd Robins /
Maybe I need to get out more, but in a novel reading career that has not been short on works featuring off-center protagonists, I’ve never encountered a guy who can juggle in the neighborhood of four girlfriends at the same time. In Scott Phillips’ new novel, Rake, however, I frankly lost count of the women in the life of the actor who plays Dr. Crandall Taylor in a mediocre or worse American soap opera that becomes a huge hit in Europe. The actor follows the success of the production to Paris, where he “can’t cross the street without somebody doing a double-take.” The character Crandall Taylor is such a hot item, in fact, that the actor essentially becomes Crandall Taylor for the story that he tells in Rake. The character Crandall Taylor is a rake on the soap opera, and the actor who becomes Crandall Taylor is a rake double-deluxe walking the streets of Paris, trying to get a movie made. And Crandall Taylor is relentless in pursuit of a goal.
He knows, for example, that he will need to recruit assorted assistants, producers, and financiers to make the picture happen. To get a viable story down on the page, it follows that he will need a writer, and that he will need to place an ad and conduct interviews until he finds a gifted creative type to achieve poetry and synergy…right?
Not so much. Taylor goes about things a bit differently. Instead, he walks into a bookstore and meets a writer there, a staffer by the name of Frederic (Fred) LaForge. Fred is just the kind of desperate character (broke, mostly unknown, hasn’t been laid in roughly a year) who Taylor can take under his wing and mold into a scriptwriting whiz. In addition, Taylor keeps an open mind about plugging the newfound scribe into various errands and troubleshooting exercises that inevitably crop up when the star (Taylor) can’t quite avoid life’s complications, such as sleeping with the main financier’s wife, in an apartment that Taylor leases from the financier. This is a job for Fred (though he needs to keep cranking on the script). To offset the downside of having heaped unsavory duties on the cash-strapped writer, Taylor concludes that the least he can do is aid Fred in putting an end to his year-long slump.
Soon enough, the actor wakes up to the reality that he has whored and schemed his way into a mess that might be impossible to overcome. Not least among his adversaries is a cop who appears to be a step or two slow, which means he might be quicker than you think. Taylor tries to mitigate the mounting disaster by promising applicable Parisians roles in the movie, whereupon Fred receives direction to update the script. As the plot thickens, the cast of characters that Fred is forced to juggle rivals something out of Bleak House.
As a bookseller, I tend to avoid novels that look as though they won’t be fun. The goal is to find a firecracker of a book, take it home, and be richly entertained by it. Then you tell everyone how great it is. This new novel from Scott Phillips, therefore, is a gift from God. Here is a practitioner of noir who understands that he is in the entertainment business, with one exquisitely mirthful sentence following another. Take it home. Light it. Look out.
Note: This review was written when Rake came out and I worked at Watermark Books & Cafe. –Todd Robins
Photography by Hannah Miner.