Summer is a time for blockbusters and Anthony Marra has delivered the goods with Mercury Pictures Presents, a sweeping book about 1940s Hollywood, Mussolini’s Italy and America’s entry into World War Two.
The action opens in the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, a struggling film studio run by Artie and Ned Feldman, two brothers modeled on Jack and Harry Warner. It’s late summer 1941, and as well as fighting each other, the Feldmans are fighting the isolationist senators accusing Hollywood of pushing America into war.
The battle to get the script for Devil’s Bargain approved is “shaping into a pivotal confrontation between campaigners for free speech and crusaders for government censorship.” But Artie is preoccupied with which of his seven hairpieces to wear to the Senate hearing — lined up behind his desk “where a more successful producer might display his Oscars.”
As colorful as Artie Feldman is, the story’s true hero is his deputy, Maria Lagana, a twenty-eight-year-old Italian emigrant with the talents of a “general, diplomat, hostage negotiator and hairdresser.” She fled Mussolini’s Italy with her mother after unwittingly causing the arrest and internment of her father, Giuseppe, a defense lawyer who once made a living defending socialist, anarchist and communist agitators. She is the link between west coast America and fascist Europe and a sub-plot that asks important questions about identity, stereotyping and fake news. Her boyfriend, Eddie Lu, is a struggling Chinese-American actor who uncomfortably hits the jackpot as demand for Japanese villains spikes after Pearl Harbor.
Marra is a deft and convincing writer with a sharp turn of phrase and a dark sense of humor that ignites every page. When Lu swaps the “I Am a Chinese American” button he customarily wears in public for a phantom mask for a costume party, he is amazed that no one looks at him twice: “If he was less conspicuous inside a monster’s mask, it said more about the faces he blended into than the one he hid.”
Mercury Pictures Presents is reminiscent of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, which also skips from Italy to Hollywood, but Marra’s biting commentary elevates it to more than a beach read. Those who already know the Californian-dwelling Marra from his first two books, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno, both set in Chechnya and Russia, will relish his return, which took him seven years to research and write and which will win him committed new fans and, if there is any literary justice, prizes.