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A novel by Varley O'Connor
A Non-review by
J. Stefan-cole

You know all those hot looking New York City waiters and waitresses you shamelessly flirt with? How many of them do you suppose are aspiring actors? Varley O'Connor's novel, A COMPANY of THREE; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003, reveals the world of struggling actors from the inside out, from having been an actor herself.

Robert Holt, Patrick O'Doherty and Irene Jane Walpers team up after meeting in the coveted scene-study class of the notorious Andre Sadovsky. They share everything from finances to sex, shoulders to cry on and finally the same roof. This is New York City of the seventies, gritty but also cheaper and friendlier, according to the author, to dreams. A time before Rudy Giuliani turned Times Square into a Disney theme park and Donald Trump and his ilk turned the city's real property into an Olympus only god-like wealth could afford. There was a living art scene with galleries popping up, and the beginnings of Off Off Broadway, all wide open to innovative ideas, good, terrible and in between. Money wasn't yet the bottom line and actors did not need a Hollywood dollar sign stamped on their foreheads to find work. There was plenty of competition, but also lots of opportunity; all it took was hanging on hard on to hope, adjusting the dream where needed, and a little luck.

Other Book Reviews:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Mark Haddon

A Company of Three
- Varley O'Connor
Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
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Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

The novel gets off go a bit of a slow start establishing the characters. I felt at times I was hearing about them more than discovering them. I would have liked to have seen more of Robert waiting tables, or Irene with one of her sugar daddies, and maybe followed Patrick after bartending as he walked the mean, three AM city streets. Robert is the narrator; sturdy, normal and, unlike Patrick and Irene, nearly always lands on his feet. He is good looking with a lonely streak, an apparent talent for acting (though this comes into question later) and a nice amount of luck. Patrick is an oddity, bird-like face and tall--six foot five--a former dancer, a potential star in that medium until he mysteriously smashed a knee cap (dancing mishap or pre-arranged car crash?). Acting is a fall back position for Patrick who has initially made it into Andre's class by virtue of his undeniable presence. Patrick is also gay and, compared to Robert, utterly luckless. His personal life is an enigma intensified by a penchant for fictionalizing. Enter Irene Jane, a firecracker of a girl in cowboy boots, straight out of Coffeyville, Kansas, she's intense, talented and gorgeous--a character that in real life would quickly get on my nerves because she's so on all the time, but I qualify--my nerves, she makes an entertaining character to read.

Robert falls hard for Irene but wavers between bewitched fascination and infuriated exasperation. They are a curious threesome. Robert: "Patrick and I were veterans. Acting had drawn us together. Irene, the last potent elixir, entangled us hopelessly." Affinities, a common goal, a common enemy, can make for unlikely alliances. The trio becomes a kind of ad hoc family, sticking together long after differences and life itself would have pulled most friendships apart. This is an endearing quality in the book, these comrades-at-arms who at times become dangerously entwined. Robert tries to keep things sane, but he gets breaks the other two don't. He lands a few high profile TV commercials playing smiley-faced dads, which segues into a soap opera part to the tune of $20,000 a month. Soap opera, of course, is not his ideal, only a high-priced compromise. He moves ahead, but wonders if the work is even acting. O'Connor does a funny send up of him coming to grips with the emptiness of daytime melodrama where an emotional decision can take ten episodes to come about, with no themes and thrown together characters created by limp writing. The hope is that soaps will lead back to the stage, to a bigger and brighter future. This is the hope of every great compromise, that it will not corrupt the gift and swallow the person.

Success does not go to Robert's head. We don't get to see him interact much, though, in his new role. His lonliness again? He has cruised out of the hand-to-mouth waiting tables by night, auditioning by day world that Irene and Patrick still inhabit. He stays in the apartment they share on grungy Fourteenth Street, and offers to support Irene financially as he tries to find opportunities for a flagging Patrick. He still has it bad for Irene in spite of her having taken up, disastrously, with Andre; ever the more practical, except where she is concerned. Eventually there is squabbling: Robert to Irene who has just insulted him:"'You're such an actress, arrogant and temperamental and so fucking emotionally draining I've just about had it.' At that, she swept out the door--only Patrick made her come back and apologize, ruining the exit." A company of three.

Patrick and Irene are stand bys to Robert's success. A classic flash point: one succeeds, how do the others react? How does the successful one treat the other's stagnation? Robert wants to remain sympathetic, though he develops a whininess at times, as if he's carrying the weight of the world. He feels protective after Irene confides that a sleazy producer tried to get her to couch audition: "I couldn't scold her, I couldn't judge her. Here was this great looking woman who should have been having a wonderful life, with this spectacular talent that no one cared anything about, and now she felt ashamed, as if it were her fault some pervert would grovel for a hand job." Yikes. Waitress!

The second half of the book really picks up. Robert brings Patrick and Irene out to Missouri to star in regional theater with him directing. The writing seems surer here, more pinned to the ground. Arriving at Irene's house in Coffeyville, Robert takes in the great plains: "The house was bigger and blander than what I'd envisioned: ranch style, wood and brick, late fifties. One lonely tree in the whole big front yard. Silence, a distant buzzing of insects. No sunsets, no clouds in the sky, just the unabating heat and a foretaste of darkness, like the light was getting tired." The scenes in Irene's Kansas rodeo town sing. We meet her hard-nosed father whose routine consists of work, TV and suspecting his daughter. Of her apparent unhappiness he says only, "'That girl has never been contented and she never will be.'" Her mother died when Irene was entering her teens and she makes up for the loss by sleeping with older cowboy types with names like Hook, a habit she continues in New York. That led me to wonder if there isn't a disturbing leitmotif here of art as therapy, or at least acting as such.

Both Patrick and Irene deteriorate as disappointment becomes the norm. Patrick takes a dark turn in his nocturnal wanderings and Irene gets sucked in, possibly as compensation for her own failings she wants to succeed in saving him. Quitting a dream is probably the only real failure, but time is never on the side of an actor. Or as Irene says: "'How long can you keep doing something that nobody wants? I get so tired of essentially saying Please, like me.'" Yeah, and after waiting tables has lost its charm and no other skills have been developed, where does an actor go? They are not the only ones, what about the really fine musicians you sometimes hear playing while waiting for the subway car to roll in or books that die on hard drives? Questions bubbles up; friendship and ambition and compromised dreams. Varley O'Connor takes a hard look at a tough business, one that, if anything, has gotten even tougher since Irene, Patrick and Robert longed to take Broadway by storm.

©November 2003 J. Stefan-Cole


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