Actor-turned-director-turned-journalist-turned-author John Gilmore is a troubled young man. Never mind the fact that he’s in his 60s. Never mind the fact that he’s long outlived his Hollywood contemporaries (James Dean, Janis Joplin, Steve McQueen, Lenny Bruce). John Gilmore is still a troubled young man. God bless him.
Gilmore began his literary career exploring the crime-soaked history of the American West. Deeply enamored with the dark side of humanity, Gilmore emerged as more anthropologist than journalist in books like The Garbage People (chronicling the trial of Charles Manson and his brood), Cold-Blooded (peering into the mind of Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper killer of Tucson) and Severed (investigating L.A.’s infamous, unsolved Black Dahlia murder). By becoming emotionally involved in the cases, by chatting face-to-face with people like Charles Manson and by immersing himself in the zeitgeist, Gilmore broke down the barriers that normally separate “reporter” and “reader.”
Eventually, Gilmore came to terms with his own Hollywood past and began to dole out booze-, drug- and sex-saturated vignettes that shed light on Tinseltown’s tarnished underbelly. His Hollywood biographies are as cellar-dwelling compelling as his true crime books. Gilmore’s brutally honest Brillo Pad of a book Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip, for example, shares the writer’s myriad personal encounters with a galaxy of stars on the verge of going supernova. Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, James Dean—all crossed in front of Gilmore’s laser beam gaze moments before exploding into a million mirrored fragments.
With his latest book, though, Gilmore has dropped the formality of nonfiction to plumb a depth of darkness in the human soul even his previous real-life confessionals couldn’t offer up. In Fetish Blonde, Gilmore adopts the fictional, first-person persona of Jake Morgan, an aging screenwriter who finds himself in Paris working on a low-rent horror film with some fellow Hollywood habitués, all of whom are straddling the fine line between “expatriates” and “burn-outs.” In the very first sentence of the book, Jake sticks a pistol in his mouth and pulls the trigger. That shocking introductory suicide attempt fails, leaving Jake “tasting metal and oil and a sudden nausea.” Things don’t get much better for our protagonist from there on out.
Jake is described as a highly paid script doctor—but the fact that he’s stuck in Europe working on a Japanese-financed vampire flick in which a “half-Latvian, ex-stand up comic turned French movie star” chases some semi-clad punkettes through the sewers leads us to believe that Jake’s career may be on its last legs. His personal life isn’t in much better shape. He’s just wrapped up a particularly nasty divorce in which his actress wife accused him of molesting his stepdaughter. He’s also carrying on a kinky affair with an old girlfriend who’s currently married to the half-Latvian, ex-stand up comic turned French movie star.
So here’s our hero—a little too old and tired, perhaps, to be living the Paris high life, struggling to put words in the mouth of a French vampire, spending his nights in seedy dwarf-tossing bars and occasionally engaging in some perverted water sports with an ex-flame. Into this grotesque Hogarth portrait wanders Juju, a vibrant, candle-burning-at-both-ends street waif, whose teenaged joie d’ vivre captures Jake’s attentions. Enamored with this punked-out Tinkerbell, Jake throws caution to the wind and engages in a dangerous, soul-sucking, fetish-busting May/December affair. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) his sexual explorations, Jake continues to act like a man who’s merely forgotten he’s supposed to be committing suicide. But if you think things will end well, you’re on the wrong train, son.
Though not quite a full-fledged member of the Beat Poet movement, Gilmore has always had the same arid stream-of-consciousness meter as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and the others. His psycho-sexual narrative unspools with the uncensored mental candor of Jack Kerouac and the blunt street poetry of Mickey Spillane. Fetish Blonde is a film noir sex flick as seen through the lens of David Lynch. Anyone familiar with the kinky tableaus, weird atmosphere and hovering air of violence on display in Lynch’s films (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) will feel right at home here.
Fetish Blonde is not for delicate readers. Gilmore has never been one to pull punches. The raw violence and subterranean depravity with which the narrative unfolds makes for some rough sledding. In giving us a character willing explore his darkest urges, Gilmore is asking his readers to question how far they themselves are willing to go. Most readers will find their limit somewhere on Gilmore’s black-wrapped pages.