The Empty Glass
By J. I. Baker
Blue Rider Press
325 pages, $25.95
By Christopher Schobert
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
The shelf in David Lynch’s basement labeled “ABORTED FILMS” is cluttered, misshapen, and odd—as might be expected. There’s “Ronnie Rocket,” a dwarf detective tale, and “One Saliva Bubble,” a wacky comedy that was rumored to star Steve Martin and Martin Short.
But perhaps the most fascinating of these is “Goddess,” written by Lynch and Mark Frost shortly before they began work on “Twin Peaks,” and based on the book by Anthony Summer. In his text, Summer made the accusation that Bobby Kennedy and Peter Lawford were intimately involved in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a claim which today does not sound particularly shocking, but made waves in 1985.
(I found this warning, from a Marilyn fan site: “The 1992 edition includes a photo of Marilyn’s body after autopsy. I have no idea why the author would do such a thing to Marilyn’s memory.”)
“Goddess,” of course, was never made, and likely never will be, at least by Lynch. But in some ways, J. I. Baker’s new novel “The Empty Glass” reminds me of what Lynch might have brought to the tale of the world’s most tragic cracked actress: a sense of doom, of outside forces too strong and warped to defeat, and of the grotesqueries of Hollywood. Yet even with this Lynchian undercurrent (there is even a blurb on the dustjacket from “Wild at Heart” author Barry Gifford), “Glass” is a disappointment, a story that peters out and, sadly, adds little to the cult of Marilyn. Why? Because we’ve been down this grim road before. It no longer holds any surprise.
Even so, much to chew on here, including our protagonist. Los Angeles deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald is an intriguingly ruffled character, a man with a past that killed both his career and his marriage. He’s stuck in a shady apartment with hot plate and a cold cup of coffee. It’s no place for his young son, and he knows it.
Fitzgerald is called to duty at 5 a.m. on the morning after Monroe’s death to the star’s home, and everything is fishy – even the location: “No name on the mailbox. It was modest enough. The most famous woman in the world, with all the money that implies, but instead of a mansion in the Hills, she’d bought a one-floor hacienda in Brentwood.”
Everything is amiss, from the position of the body, which appears to have been “placed” (“People who overdose don’t drift happily away,” Fitzgerald says. “There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”)
There is also an empty water glass, which Fitzgerald – the novel is written in the first person – calls particular attention to: “Remember the glass. It becomes significant.”
Indeed, it does. Things get appropriately tangled, very quickly. We’re introduced to Annie Laurie, “second only to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons when it comes to chronicling the ins and outs and ups and downs of the rich and famous. OK, third to Hedda and Louella.” Laurie is an inspired character; rogue police bigwig Captain Hamilton, less so.
Just as villainous is, yes, Bobby Kennedy, and to say too much more than that would spoil the book’s second half. But the character we return to, of course, is Marilyn, whose voice is kept “alive” by diary entries. “I wish you all just leave me alone,” she wrote, as the end came near.
Baker is a debut novelist, and the executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler. He has created something very interesting here, I think, a work whose failures have more to do with the sheer number of tomes, films and stories about Marilyn Monroe, and their hold on our collective mind, than with the story itself. He’s a good writer, smart at creating a dark mood and an eve-of-destruction vibe. His next book will certainly be noteworthy, I think.
For the Marilyn completist, then, “The Empty Glass” is likely a must-read, but not a satisfying one. I think most fans would rather think of Monroe as the sweetly naïve starlet brought to life by Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn” – tragic, yes, but above all else, radiant, and full of life. “The Empty Glass” presents Marilyn as full of death, if you will, and while that might be more accurate, it remains too unsettling.
Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree and a News contributing critic.