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The Boston Phoenix To Live and Die in LA

Screenwriter Peter Farrelly writes a Hollywood novel that focuses on the little things.

By Rachel O'Malley

JULY 13, 1998: 

THE COMEDY WRITER, by Peter Farrelly, Doubleday, 352 pages, $12.95 paper.

Peter Farrelly cowrote and codirected the movie Dumb and Dumber, but his second novel, The Comedy Writer, has more in common with Swingers. It's the tale of everyguy Henry Halloran, who decides to ditch his Boston salesman gig and move to LA after his girlfriend dumps him. Determined to try his hand at writing screenplays, he nervously imagines what people are saying about him back home: "Hear about Halloran? He's nuts, he's lost it, he's delusional, he thinks he's fucking Hemingway!"

Uneasy about being alone at age 33, Henry regularly entertains lustful thoughts and still rattles off a string of prayers before bed every night. Three days after arriving in California, he witnesses a suicide that he knows he could have prevented. Already at a crossroads in life, Henry is shaken further by witnessing this death: it forces him to think about what kind of person he wants to be, and whether that even matters.

We realize that Henry's a pretty decent guy when he takes in Colleen, the suicide victim's sister, who's read Henry's story about the death in the LA Times Magazine (an account in which he presents himself purely as a bystander). Colleen is one of the most unstable, teeth-clenchingly annoying characters to appear in recent fiction. If she's not jumping on Henry's bed or accidentally hitting him in the temple with a golf club, she's nicknaming him "Monkey" and interrupting one of his few romantic opportunities with an answering-machine message: "Hi, it's me. I was just wondering if you were through 'boning your date's brains out,' as you so nicely put it." Yet Henry, still trying to do something for the dead woman he could have helped, lets Colleen stay at his place indefinitely until she can find an apartment of her own.

"Anyway," I said, "it won't be that bad with two of us. There's just a few things I'll have to give up."

"Like?"

"Well, like walking around the apartment wearing a bra with a peacock feather up my ass."

She smirked at this.

"That doesn't make me gay, you know."

"Of course not," she said. "It just means you're a cross-dresser."

"Right. And a bird lover."

It's at times like these, in casual dialogue when Henry is just being himself, that he stands out as a comedic protagonist.

Henry finally lands an agent, but as he pitches ideas to the Seinfeld team, chats with Robert Redford about sneakers, and plays basketball with the cast of Cheers, he comes to realize that despite talent and luck, he'll have to be willing to compromise himself if he wants to make it. For anyone who's ever considered giving writing a go, watching Henry endure the lows (he accidentally serves a three-year-old a cocktail during his stint as a waiter) and ride the highs of this career choice will provoke knowing laughs. And Farrelly offers an insider's view of Hollywood, with its egomaniacal producers, formulaic writing rules, and silicone-enhanced would-be actresses.

In the end though, it's Farrelly's delivery and down-to-earth tone that give The Comedy Writer its appeal. This is no epic tale of life and death or fame and fortune in Hollywood; rather, Farrelly focuses on the stuff that often gets swept aside in attempts to tell such stories. We listen to Henry's thoughts as he asks out almost every woman he comes across; we wonder about his hypochondria; and we watch as he sits down each day to work on his manuscript. Through touches like this, Farrelly's message subtly reveals itself: it's one about being yourself, and about dealing with whatever happens (or doesn't happen) in life.

At the beginning of the novel, while wondering about "calculated accidents" and destiny, Henry tells us about the aftermath of a childhood incident in which he hooked the family dog while fishing with his little sister:

My parents didn't know why their son had come running into the yard sobbing, but since Kara wasn't with me, they feared the worst. I was too upset to tell them where my sister was, so my father shook me. . . . "Where the hell's Kara?!" he screamed. After I managed to squeak out, "The harbor," my mother made a pathetic lurch in the harbor's direction -- pathetic because taking the car was the call, seeing as the harbor was a mile away, and also because she ran straight into the concrete block we'd been using for second base and ended up with a cracked fibula and a row of stitches.

This is Henry's reasoning for not getting upset about things (a rationale he applies to the suicide) -- it just makes things worse. But throughout The Comedy Writer, Henry is upset, and watching him try to cope is a lot like envisioning him stammering in the back yard at the age of 10. As the novel progresses you end up listening for more of the little details of Henry's life -- which are really about life in general -- not only because you can relate but because, with Farrelly at the helm, you can laugh.


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