For his new novel, Armistead Maupin has traveled south from San Francisco, the setting of his addictive six-volume Tales of the City, and gone to Hollywood. Written in the form of a journal, which, in turn, is meant to be a movie treatment, Maybe the Moon stars Cadence Roth, an actress out to get famous. Though she’s armored with a survivor’s ego, the odds against Cadence are colossal. Not only is she almost 30 years old, she stands a mere 31 inches tall — ”a dwarf…not a midget, which means that certain parts of me are closer to average size than others.” Film jobs are few for the World’s Shortest Mobile Adult Human.
The irony here is that Cady Roth starred in one of the most popular movies of all time. Squeezed into an electronically wired rubber suit, she played the title character in Mr. Woods, a 1981 blockbuster fantasy about a tree elf stranded in the suburbs. And if this sounds suspiciously like a certain Steven Spielberg film, it’s supposed to: Maupin has dedicated the novel to his friend the late Tamara De Treaux, best known for inhabiting the costume of E.T. (Dedicated to and based on the life of? Well, there’s a good question.)
In the 10 years since her one major — and uncredited — role, Cady has been struggling to maintain her ”sacred independence,” appearing as a killer zombie in a horror picture and as a jar of anticellulite cream in an infomercial, even singing pop songs at children’s birthday parties thoughout Beverly Hills. Doing anything she can think of, no matter how mortifying, to keep ”a dream or two in the pipeline.”
Just when things seem bleakest (”I’m spinning my wheels….Not even that, I’m parked”), fate flounders in. Hired to gear up again as Mr. Woods for a televised awards banquet, Cady hatches a brassy plot to turn attention away from the beloved elf and toward herself. Things don’t quite work out as planned, although a poignant epilogue suggests that Cady’s journal is destined to become a major — but probably dreadful and dishonest — motion picture.
For all the name-dropping, Maybe the Moon is not a movie-people novel, and readers who expect a juicy roman à clef may be disappointed (the Spielberg figure has scarcely more than a walk-on part). If anything, this is a fiction that belongs to that other Hollywood genre, the peripheral-movie-people novel — a kinder, gentler Day of the Locust, with no riots and no mean-spiritedness.
Maupin has always been a humane storyteller, and an accessible one. His life-is-good-but-sloppy soap operas are marked by solid craft, superb dialogue, and what used to be called heart. Maybe the Moon has all of that, plus a remarkable narrative ventriloquism. Chatty and self-promoting, tender and occasionally brusque, Cady’s voice is perfectly pitched. And heartbreaking. There hasn’t been a funnier, or sadder, novel this year. A