Blonde Lightning

by Terrill Lee Lankford

Published by Ballantine Books

304 pages, 2005

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Lightning Strikes Twice

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


The California film industry was skewered by Terrill Lee Lankford in last year's Earthquake Weather, and given the ready fodder of maladjusted personalities in the Los Angeles film scene, it's no surprise that there's plenty more damage still to be done in this year's sequel, Blonde Lightning. Once more featuring creative executive Mark Hayes and tormented screenwriter Clyde McCoy, Blonde Lightning takes the reader further inside the insidious process of moviemaking, with a side plot that spirals into a series of violent episodes worthy of the best hard-boiled moments of the genre. This is one sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor, it surpasses.

Set in L.A. in June 1994 (six months after the Northridge earthquake and just at the start of the O.J. Simpson homicide saga), Lightning finds Hayes unemployed, due to the murder of his boss Dexter Morton and the closing of Morton's production company, events that transpired in the previous novel. While sitting in his favorite haunt, the Viande, downing a Cajun blackened steak and a Tanqueray and tonic, Hayes runs into McCoy, his cantankerous and binge-drinking neighbor, only to learn that McCoy is set to direct a small feature film (straight to video) based on his own screenplay.

It was still a modern-day riff on classic film noir. The plot was familiar. Chandler territory, even though Clyde denied the influence. A private detective (to be played by Vince Timlin) is hired by a gangster to find a femme fatale. When he does, they fall in love and end up on the run. But does she really love him, or is she just using him? Those questions (and many more) are answered in a blaze of sex and violence.

The manipulative McCoy offers Hayes a job on the film and a chance to earn the film credit that Hayes has been desperately craving ever since he arrived in the City of Angels from Louisiana. That credit would be as an associate producer, and though Hayes considers it less than ideal ("That was the equivalent of a director's nephew in Hollywood jargon ..."), he agrees and even offers McCoy his remaining savings to help finance the production. Hayes' real function on this project would be to watch McCoy's back on the set, "once a day, cleaning the daggers out of it." The set, we soon discover, is epidemic with production problems, including investors who want creative control; a leading actor who pouts because his leading lady won't let him into her pants; and, particularly humorous, a formerly famous but now pretty much forgotten older actor who is sexually harassing the Hawaiian wardrobe supervisor. Hayes proves himself adept at keeping these types of tribulations under control and the set stable enough, but he is no match for the spiraling violence that's about to invade his and McCoy's lives.

Those troubles begin when McCoy's martial-arts actress girlfriend, Emily Woolrich, is confronted by psychotic manager-wannabe and Hollywood sleaze Mace Thornburg, who believes that Woolrich owes him money ("Tell him he and his girlfriend better pay me what I'm owed, plus damages, or he'll never get to finish this little film of his"). Told to take a hike, Thornburg retaliates by mercilessly slandering Woolrich. But after a series of suspicious "accidents" nearly kill Woolrich, McCoy loses his cool, sure that Thornburg is responsible. He flies to Vegas to confer with gangster friends, taking Hayes with him.

The problems confronting Hayes and McCoy on the Blonde Lightning film set are evidently ego-driven and certainly petty in nature, almost farcical -- and nothing compared with the Pandora's box of deadly criminal activity these two open in Sin City. Conferring with Rick Collonia, a mob-connected Jimmy Cagney impersonator ("He had Cagney down: the same features, same height, same build, same body language, same mannerisms, and same facial tics"), McCoy and Hayes hook up with Carmine C., a gangster cut from the Sopranos mold. As a cover, Carmine asks that McCoy and Hayes refer to him instead as "Gerry G." (OK, he's dangerous but not inventive). After agreeing on a sum of money, Carmine heads off to Los Angeles to try and talk some sense into Thornburg, but things there take a nasty and violent turn ("The problem -- it's not a problem anymore"). And soon McCoy is being hit up for hush money. When he calls in L.A. thugs to help fend off their Vegas counterparts, the body count starts to rise dramatically.

Given his film background, author Lankford has likely suffered through many of the frustrations of moviemaking that are depicted in these pages. But rather than become a thoroughgoing cynic, he manages to retain a dark sense of humor. He has also developed a keen eye for observing the nuances of a town heavily reliant on star power. For instance, here's Hayes describing an encounter between Blonde Lightning's leading man, Vince Timlin (based on a specific, real life actor according to the novel's acknowledgments), and his fans:

A group of schoolgirls spotted Vince from across the room and began a titter party that should have been more embarrassing to him than complimentary. They had obviously seen a few of his Shannon Tweed lovefests on Showtime while doing their homework. Vince acted like he didn't notice, but I could see his ego glowing involuntarily from across the room. A recognizable leading man in this town has the power to render all men around him invisible to women.

When he's not preoccupied with production difficulties or gangsters threatening his life, Mark Hayes attempts a relationship with the beautiful Tracy Twitty, a former actress and friend of Woolrich's. Though Hayes continues to mourn the death of Charity James, an actress he fell for in Earthquake Weather, Hayes can't resist Tracy's beauty ("She seemed to have stepped out of a dream. She was female perfection -- at least as I imagined it."). McCoy, however, warns the "young Hayes" to be careful.

"You know, the old Damaged Goods Syndrome. She's sick with it. Can't you tell just by looking at her? She's so fucked up by all the shit she went through as a kid that she can't deal with life as it comes down now. She's talking to you, but she just sees this big angry dick. Probably her uncle or her stepdad. Ask her. She'll probably tell you all about it."

McCoy isn't far off the mark in this observation. Tracy's currently estranged from her landscaper husband, and after a brief flirtation, she and Hayes wind up in the sack together. While the sex is hot ("Let me just say this -- it was worth the wait"), Tracy has many dark issues, not the least of which is the vacillation in her feelings for her husband. Hayes finds himself constantly shut out by the troubled beauty.

With the filming of Blonde Lightning finally having "wrapped," and in order to prevent Timlin or the other producers from cutting or altering his work, McCoy escapes to Mexico, soon to be tracked down and joined by Hayes. (Considering the number of crime novels this year that have been set at least partially "south of the border," including Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog, Mexico seems to be the "it" locale just now.) While the violence, of course, follows McCoy and Hayes, the denouement of this novel highlights a central theme of Lankford's series: the pure joy of making movies, despite the downsides ("They didn't care that they were making only fifty or a hundred bucks a day. They were making a movie."). Though capable of walking away from nearly everything in his life, McCoy is a purist when it comes to film making.

"My job is done. See, Hayes, sometimes making a movie can just be about making a movie. It's its own reward. It doesn't have to be a stepping-stone. It doesn't have to lead to a bigger career."

Blonde Lightning appears to be the final chapter in the fictional careers of Hayes and McCoy. Readers will miss these two disparate men, thrown together by a mutual passion for celluloid and driven apart by a common disgust for their roles in the escalating bloodshed. At the end, Hayes is transformed from being "just another godless heathen in the city of Sodom" to a man seeking a new path in life. McCoy's experiences are less cathartic, perhaps because his conscience runs shallower than Hayes'. One can only hope that the recent Hollywood fad of remaking classics such as Herbie, the Love Bug and Yours, Mine and Ours will compel Hayes and McCoy to have another go at it. If not, one can count on Lankford to deliver some other sort of stellar novel to keep his reading audience from missing them too much. Hurry up, Terrill. | September 2005


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.