A hundred pages into Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, we begin to sense that this may be one of those rare books about the movies that actually plumbs the mystery of why we are so moved by them. The feeling kicks in around the time the hero, Jonathan Gates, falls into bed with Clare Swann, later one of the country’s most important movie critics. At this point, though, it’s still the mid-’50s and Clare is just an opinionated nobody running a mildewed art-house cinema in L.A. She’s burned-out on Bergman and Rossellini, and a nice, pliable college student — empty of head and full of body — is just what she needs. Their four-year affair is highlighted by Clare’s simultaneous instruction of Jonathan in cinematic theory and sexual practice — what her pupil calls a ”frenzied cerebral-genital curriculum.”

The rich tale that flows around the pair is heavy with affection for the movies. Titles, directors, and camera angles are batted back and forth, the lingua franca of people for whom film is life with the boring bits cut out. And out of this knowing celebration, a mystery coalesces. Jonathan becomes interested in the work of an obscure director named Max Castle, a German who arrived in Hollywood as a boy genius but 10 years later was reduced to churning out repellently powerful horror quickies on filmdom’s Poverty Row. Castle, Gates discovers, was an artist of the subliminal, a filmmaker who hid images of depraved sex and violence in the shadows of his cheapjack productions.

This darkening fantasia is revealed slowly, and Roszak’s writing is pungent and involving. Still best known for 1969’s The Making of a Counterculture, a book that sought to explain ’60s youth to an older generation of intellectuals, the writer proves to be a spellbinder when it comes to fiction. His ideas are fresh, his wit inventive; above all, his characters are marvelous. And at some point, the reader begins to wonder if the author can sustain his wonderful accumulation of anecdote and make-believe history for an entire novel.

The answer is simple: He can’t. A little past the halfway mark, Flicker shifts its sights away from classic-film appreciation and toward modern-day moviemaking. Here Roszak starts telling us that the movies are going quite literally to hell and taking us along for the ride. ”We were in the later stages of that long forced march into permissiveness that we remember as ‘the sixties,”’ the narrator writes. Young audiences are little more than ”connoisseurs of crap.”

Sadly, as he bears down on that shrill message, Roszak loses interest in his characters. The writing turns rushed; the sense of time and place becomes confused. By the final pages the mutation is complete: The ”novel of ideas” has become the rant of an academic disenchanted with a medium he no longer comprehends. Roszak has a genuine gift for storytelling, a deep love of movies, and an understanding of what they can mean to us — but they just make Flicker‘s missed opportunities seem all the more tragic. B-

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