The Manhattan Beach Project: A Novel

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9781416572763: The Manhattan Beach Project: A Novel
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Barely four years after winning an Oscar, Charlie has sunk into the ranks of Hollywood bottom-feeders -- reduced to living in his nephew's pool house, kiting checks and taking the bus to his weekly Debtors Anonymous meeting, where he meets a mysterious ex-CIA agent who proposes to resuscitate Charlie's foundering career -- in the beyond surreal world of reality TV.

Charlie puts his tap shoes on to sell a show about a ruthless Uzbek warlord and his family ("think The Osbournes meets The Sopranos") to a rogue division of ABC, known as ABCD, which operates out of a skunkworks in Manhattan Beach, California, and whose mandate is to develop, under top secret cover like that for the Manhattan Project, extreme reality TV shows to bolster the network's ratings.

Warlord becomes a breakout hit and results not only in causing one of America's largest entertainment conglomerates to go into full damage-control mode but also in shifting the balance of power in Central Asia and in proving that in show business it's not over till the mouse sings.

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About the Author:

Peter Lefcourt is the author of six previous novels: Eleven Karens, The Woody, Abbreviating Ernie, Di and I, The Dreyfus Affair and The Deal. He is also an award-winning writer for film and television.
He lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Sharing

Three years, nine months and twenty-four days after winning an Academy Award for producing the best picture of the year, Charlie Berns was sitting on a folding chair in a second-floor room at the Brentwood Unitarian Church Annex listening to a woman with smeared lipstick and a bad postnasal drip tell him, and the other thirteen people in the room, that she had just charged $1,496 worth of cashmere sweaters on a VISA card she had received in the mail and failed to destroy.

"I was just a week short of eighteen months debt-free..."

The woman, who looked as if she had slept in her car with the heater on, collapsed back into a heap and began to pull compulsively on her hair.

"Thank you for sharing, Sheila," the group leader Phyllis said. "Anyone else want to share?"

She looked straight at Charlie as she said this. Charlie looked right back at her. There was no way he was going to get up there and tell this group of deadbeats that after making $2.65 million in back-end profits for producing the picture, he had let it all ride on the NASDAQ in February of 2000. That his broker at the time, Teddy Herbentin, kept calling it a market correction until the 2.65 mil dissolved into low five figures and Charlie had cashed out to pay his back property taxes. That the next picture he developed collapsed under the collective weight of four different writers, a million-plus in before the studio pulled the plug. That the book he optioned with what remained of the back-end money, an exposé on sweatshops in Honduras, turned out to be a complete fabrication by the author, who had gotten all his information off some unreliable Web sites and was being sued by the Hondurans, as well as by the publisher. That the woman he had been living with, Deidre Hearn -- a thirty-eight-year-old development executive who had been sent to shut down his Oscar-winning picture and instead wound up working on it with him -- had been killed by a faulty electric transformer on his automatic sprinkler system, electrocuted on the Fourth of July last year when she had tried to repair a broken sprinkler head and her wet hand had made contact with the exposed terminal of the transformer that his gardener had been promising to fix for months.

Nor was he going to share the fact that he was living in his nephew Lionel's pool house, driving Lionel's personal assistant's sister's car while she was recovering from periodontal surgery -- a 1989 Honda Civic with one functioning headlight -- communicating on a cell phone that he had gotten on promotion with a kited credit card and was there in this Debtors Anonymous meeting only because his debt consolidator had insisted he attend as a condition of his protecting Charlie from the dogpack of creditors that descended on his mailbox daily.

This was the third meeting he had been to, and he had yet to open his mouth, except to wolf down bagels during the after-meeting social period. He hadn't gotten past the first of the twelve steps: We admitted that we were powerless over debt -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

As far as Charlie was concerned, his problems had nothing to do with being powerless over debt: it was the debt that was making him powerless, a semantic distinction that did not seem to fall under any of the twelve steps displayed prominently on the church annex room wall. If it hadn't been for that three-year-and-counting market correction; if he had gotten a decent script of two to produce; if he hadn't become severely depressed after Deidre died trying to save his lawn; plus a few dozen other ifs, he would still be living in his 4,900 square feet in the Beverly Hills flats, driving the SEL560 and employing a small army of people to deal with his life for him.

He had gone to his debt consolidator, Xuang Duc, a Vietnamese with a green card and no-frills English, only because his creditors had started to call him at all hours at Lionel's, his last known phone number, and Lionel told him to please do something about it asap because he, Lionel, did not want to have to change his phone number.

And it was Xuang Duc who had suggested that he see a mental health professional and had furnished him with a list of people who would treat people temporarily unable to pay. When he started having suicidal thoughts, Charlie took out the list and scanned it, looking for someone convenient to Brentwood. He avoided driving to places in more remote areas of the city because he was using an expired Union 76 gas card, whose existence he had not disclosed to Xuang Duc, as he was supposed to, and which would certainly be shut down soon.

This was not the first time that Charlie Berns had considered pulling the plug. A year and a half before winning the Best Picture Oscar, he had actually hooked up a hose to the exhaust pipe of his about-to-be-repossessed Mercedes and fed it through the doggie door of his Beverly Hills house, after having taped up all the windows meticulously with gaffer's tape. It was only the fortuitous arrival of his nephew Lionel, just off the Greyhound from New Jersey, that had kept Charlie from drifting into oblivion on the fumes of his fuel-injected engine.

And it was Lionel's script based on the life of the nineteenth-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli that Charlie had optioned, had a drunken hack named Madison Kearney rewrite into a Middle Eastern action movie called Lev Disraeli: Freedom Fighter, got the studio to invest fifty million dollars in against domestic box office after he managed to get a black action star with a fleeting interest in Zionism to commit to the picture, which started shooting in Belgrade, cheating Tel Aviv, until the action star got kidnapped by Macedonian separatists and Charlie had to shoot the original Disraeli script on a hidden location in Yugoslavia, cheating 1870s London, without the studio's knowing where they were until it was too late and they realized they had a best-picture candidate in the beautifully produced, talky melodrama that eventually won the big one while Charlie sat in the Shrine Auditorium catatonic in his rented tuxedo barely able to make it to the stage to accept his award in front of a planetwide TV audience.

All that was water under the bridge. Though you would have thought, as Charlie often did, that the Oscar would have at least allowed him to skate for a couple of years, enjoying fat studio housekeeping deals while developing his next picture. But he hadn't counted on the new lean and mean bottom-line studio management philosophy brought on by vertical integration and balance sheet accountability, his girlfriend getting shocked to death on his front lawn, the NASDAQ's going south, or the general law of diminishing returns as he passed birthdays that progressively defined him as an endangered species in the youth-sucking ecology of the film business.

So there he was, on the second floor of the Brentwood Unitarian Church Annex, staring down the group leader, a reedy women named Phyllis who was five years into recovery after having maxed out every charge card she could get her hands on. There were only twenty minutes left before coffee and bagels, and he wasn't going to crack now.

A woman wearing aviator glasses with a Band-Aid holding them together, a Milwaukee Brewers windbreaker and sweatpants, raised her hand.

"Thank you, Wilma," Phyllis said, all the time keeping her eyes on Charlie.

"Well," said Wilma, "I finally told Carl to move out. I had six years invested in that relationship and like I said last meeting it was suffocating me I could barely breathe you have no idea..."

When the collection basket came around, Charlie contributed two dollars -- a dollar less than Phyllis suggested but, given the fact that he had seven dollars in his pocket, a generous contribution none-theless in that it amounted to a significant percentage of his net worth -- and then stiffed it when they sent the basket back around a second time to make up what they claimed they needed to cover the coffee and the bagels.

When sharing was over, Phyllis asked people to raise their hands if they were willing to be called before the next meeting, and everyone but Charlie and a guy sitting across the room from him dutifully raised their hands. He was a short, wiry guy, maybe late forties, with bleached teeth, wearing a nicely cut sport jacket, pressed slacks, Italian shoes and tinted glasses.

During coffee and bagel time this man approached Charlie and introduced himself. "Kermit Fenster," he said, violating the rule about using last names.

"How're you doing," Charlie responded.

"You're in the entertainment business, aren't you?"

Charlie flinched.

"How do I know that? I know that because I am blessed with a photographic memory for faces. I can remember someone I met at a cocktail party sixteen years ago."

"Have we met?"

"I saw you on TV. At the Academy Awards, I'm saying three, maybe four years ago. Course, you were wearing a tux at the time and had a couple of less miles on the odometer."

He took out a tin of Altoids, offered Charlie one.

"No thanks."

"I could use a twelve-step to get off this shit. Listen, I'd like to talk to you about something."

"I'm really not in the business anymore."

"Just want to pick your brain."

"Maybe next time. I've got to take off now," Charlie said, looking pointedly at the door.

Kermit Fenster took out a thick wallet and handed him a business card.

"Give me a ring when you got a moment. We'll grab a cup of coffee."

"Sure thing," said Charlie, heading for the door.

As he walked down the hall, he passed the AA meeting room next door. Through the glass he could see someone sharing. From the man's expression of excruciatingly contrite sincerity, Charlie put him between Step Four (We made a searching and fearless moral investigation of ourselves) and Step Five (We admitted to God, as we understand Him, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs).

For ten minutes Charlie sat in the Honda at an expired parking meter, keeping an eye in the rearview for the traffic gestapo vehicle while he tried to remember which ATM he could hit. The complex kiting system he had devised for his remaining credit cards involved intricate timing. One false move and it could all come tumbling down on him. He could drive back to Lionel's and review the monthly statements, but Lionel lived way up in Mandeville Canyon, ten miles up and back, and the gas gauge was to the left of E.

He riffled through his small stack of charge cards, trying to intuit which one had a little breathing room on it. Closing his eyes, he strained to visualize the name of the company to whom he wrote the check on the overdrawn City National checking account which he mailed off at the beginning of the month, the third, maybe, which would mean they got the check for the minimum amount due on the fourth or the fifth, which would mean that he was good to the end of the billing cycle, which was the seventeenth, which was two weeks ago, nine days before the due date which would be yesterday, which....His mind skidded off the rails. These computations were getting more and more complex, especially when you had four different cards working and three bank accounts.

Not only was this system perilous, it was, as Xuang Duc had pointed out, ultimately self-defeating. Kiting credit cards was like walking from one melting ice floe to another. He was paying 19.90 percent interest on the ATM advances and merely sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss. "You making banks very rich," Xuang Duc had explained. "Where else they going to get 20 percent on their money?"

Charlie tried the MasterCard in an ATM on San Vicente, inserting it like he was putting a dollar in a slot machine, and when that didn't pay off, he tried the VISA and hit it for $80. As it turned out, he needed the eighty because the Union 76 pump spit out his gas card, and he had to give them cash in advance before they turned the spigot back on. He filled the tank only one quarter full. It was indicative of his frame of mind these days that he thought a full tank of gas was an improvident investment in his future.

Charlie did a Taco Bell drive-through for their 99-cent special. As he sat eating his lunch, he considered whether he should blow off Judith, his pro bono therapist, with whom he had a three o'clock appointment. But if he did, he would have to account to Xuang Duc, to whom Judith would report his absence. If he blew off both Judith and Xuang Duc, then he'd have to account only to VISA and MasterCard.

Judith Dinkman lived in a $1.4 million bungalow south of Olympic in Baja Beverly Hills. Her office was a converted garage apartment, furnished in brightly painted IKEA colors with travel posters on the walls. His therapist greeted him at the door with her usual motherly look, her tortoiseshell glasses hanging over her ample bosom on a gold chain. They sat opposite each other, on matching director's chairs.

"So," she said, "what's happening?"

"Not a whole lot."

"Why is that?"

"There's not much going on in my life. I go to DA meetings, then I meet with my debt consolidator, then I meet with you. What kind of life is that?"

"Isn't that the question?"

"If I had a life, I could talk about it. But I don't have a life."

"That's what we need to talk about. Why don't you have a life?"

"I can't get a job."

"And why can't you get a job?"

"I can't get a job because I spend all my time going to meetings to discuss why I can't get a job."

They went around in circles like this all the time. The same questions, the same answers. He might as well phone it in.

"All right," she said, "don't come back. I mean, there's no point in doing this unless you're willing to work at it, is there?"

"Okay, you win."

"I don't win anything. This isn't about me."
0

"You're right. I'm sorry. It's just that I don't like doing this."

"You're not supposed to like it. If you like it, you're not doing it right."

He nodded, took a deep breath. It was time to share.

"So, I went to another meeting this morning. I listened to a lot of fucked-up people talking about themselves. It made me feel pretty together actually. And then afterwards this guy came up to me, said he recognized me from seeing me get the Oscar on TV. Which was very strange because that was almost four years ago and no one else in this town seems to remember it."

"What did he say?"

"He said he wanted to talk to me about something."

"What did you do?"

"Took his card."

"Are you going to talk to him?"

"I don't know. I mean, he doesn't look like Michael J. Anthony."

"Who?"

"Michael J. Anthony. He was the guy who gave away the money on The Millionaire. He worked for John Beresford Tipton, and he would go up to this stranger that they had preselected and tell that person that his name was Michael J. Anthony and that he was going to give him a million dollars -- was this before your time?"

"Yes."

"Because if I had a million dollars I wouldn't be having this problem."

"Charlie, it's not about the money. We're past that."

Every week in DA they said it was not about the money. Xuang Duc had said that to him, as well, at their first meeting in the debt consolidator's small office in Glendale. Charlie had sat across the desk as the Vietnamese with the pocket protector and the wrinkle-free slacks explained to him, in his erratic, machine-gun English, that debt was only conquerable by behavior modif...

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