Professor Lincoln D. Hurst
Printed by permission of the author
PROFESSOR'S GRADE: F
British novelist Geoff Nicholson is well-known in England (but not outside the UK) for his farcical novels, which some compare with the early (i.e. pre-BRIDESHEAD) romps of Evelyn Waugh. In 1993 he decided to turn his attention to Errol Flynn in his potboiler THE ERROL FLYNN NOVEL. One less-than-perceptive reviewer (for the Manchester Evening News), Gerald Kaufman, is quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition to the effect that it is "hilariously funny . . . so clever, so unusual and so over-the-top that it is probably the Flynn book that Errol himself would have enjoyed most." Hardly. The truth about this book is that Errol would have been hated it, for two very sound reasons. First, he was a novelist himself, and he tended to appreciate only top-drawer literature. Second, the book is largely predicated on a vicious lie.
What lie? That Flynn was a practicing, rampant bisexual. Because this is a novel, of course, the author never actually has to defend this thesis. The book is, in addition, a farcical tour of the dark underbelly of Hollywood, with touches all the way through of cruelty, angst, bitterness and violence. Very, very funny stuff indeed.
The story centers on a flamboyant film director, Dan Ryan, who is something of a cross between John Huston and Martin Scorsese. Ryan has set about to make the ultimate "Errol Flynn Movie" - a portrait of Flynn in his later, disintegrated days, with flashbacks to his youth. The movie bears some resemblance to the portrait of James Whale provided in the recent film "Gods and Monsters." Director Dan has been looking for the perfect guy to play both the young and old Flynn, and he settles on an unknown, inexperienced actor called "Jake," who bears a passing resemblance to Flynn. The entire story is told in the first person by Jake, as he recounts how he got ready for the role of Flynn, followed by his so-called hilarious misadventures in making the film.
In preparing for the role, the first thing Jake does is to undertake a massive research project on the life of Flynn. This involves our hero reading everything about Flynn he can lay his hands on, plus viewing all of Flynn's available films. Soon Jake becomes obsessed with the great swashbuckler. The chapter describing Jake's research on Flynn's life is the least offensive part of the book, which is not saying very much. Jake (i.e. Geoff) gets most of the basic facts right, with the glaring exception that Flynn's third wife is twice referred to as "Patrice Wymark." However, the fatal flaw of Nicholson's work itself is seen at the back (p. 213), when he identifies the writers to whom he is indebted for his research for the novel. There are only three books specifically about Flynn - Flynn's MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS, Charles Higham's trash-bio of Flynn, and Earl Conrad's reflection ERROL FLYNN: A MEMOIR. Nicholson (via his surrogate. Jake) is not sure if Flynn was a Nazi spy (he tends to doubt it), but he is more or less certain that, sexually speaking, Flynn swung both ways,: "It seems perfectly likely to me that Flynn was bisexual," Jake informs us, his lucky readers. "He was very highly sexed and wasn't very choosy about who he had sex with." This becomes one of the main premises of the book.
As is often the case with mental adolescents, Nicholson/Jake is
also obsessed with the size of Flynn's private member, a topic to which he devotes
a number of pages. He quotes Earl
Conrad's remark that Flynn's phallus was of normal proportions, but then states that in this regard Conrad was lying! As to why the public still has an appetite for this sort of thing remains, to this reviewer at least, a total mystery.
One scene from the script of the film may give the reader a fair flavor of what transpires in these frequently unfunny and vulgar pages. Late in his life, Flynn runs into his old friend Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, and they have a spirited exchange (obviously based on the late encounter between Flynn had with David Niven, as recounted in Niven's BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES). (NOTE: Nicholson uses the "f" word freely throughout the novel. In order to avoid offending the more sensitive readers among us, I have chosen to render it here as ("f--k." )
So, Errol, you old son of a gun, how are you finding Las Vegas?
I'm finding Vegas fine, old sport, but for your information, I'm not a son of a gun, I'm the son of a bitch, the son of a whore.
Hey, Errol, that's no way to talk about your mother.
Errol crosses the room, picks up a bottle of vodka and pours himself a huge drink. We see that his hands are shaking.
I'll talk about her any way I damn well please.
So, Errol, did you ever f--k Jane Russell?
No. Did you?
How about Ava Gardner?
No, but I sure tried. Did you?
No. I didn't even try.
How about Olivia de Havilland?
Only in my dreams.
How about Marlene Dietrich?
No, but my first wife did.
Ah yes, Lili Damita. She was a little spitfire, wasn't she?
She was a whole squadron of Focke-Wulfs.
The laugh heartily but crudely.
How about Tyrone Power?.
Well sure, everybody's f--ked Tyrone Power.
They laugh crudely again.
You like a nice piece of ass, eh Errol?
I sure do, Howard, and frankly I don't mind what sex that ass is.
They tell me you've got a big piece of meat in your pants.
Well, you know, Howard, size is in the eye of the beholder.
In the eye, say, that's a new one.
To spare the reader, I will paraphrase what happens next. Hughes
asks Flynn if he is a man who likes to be on the receiving end of anal intercourse
(again, I am cleaning up the language), to which Flynn responds no, implying that
he is strictly an oral man. Flynn then nonchalantly offers to go down and perform
fellatio on Hughes. Hughes, however, declines, saying he'd rather go to the casino
and "risk a few bucks at the roulette wheel." Flynn airily wishes him luck,
and they each go their way.
And so goes this salacious - and ridiculous - travesty based largely
on Nicholson's twisted
perception of Flynn's life. As I said, the above dialogue should be enough to give a good idea of the mood and quality of the overall work. In fairness to Nicholson, he later says that there were "problems" with the particular scene of Flynn and Hughes, and that parts of it had to be cut out of the movie. But this is only because they did not "work" - NOT because they were untrue of Flynn.
The rest of the book proceeds along similar lines. Later in the story, Jake is going through his dead mother's things, and finds, to his great shock, a signed photo of Flynn, together with a love letter to her which is full of lurid, crass language about a sexual tryst. The letter is unsigned. However, at the end is drawn a "square question mark" - which Jake recognizes as Flynn's personal insignia. From this Jake is exhilarated by the notion that his mother may well have (I quote) "f--ked Errol Flynn!" This may explain his strange resemblance to the dead actor.
I will not recount what finally happens to Jake and the movie, since I have already given this work more space than it deserves. For anyone interested in Flynn or the truth about him, this is a work to steer clear of. I tried to give the book a fair reading, but I failed to find any of it funny, and found much of it nauseating. In some sections it failed to hold my sustained attention. Okay, so Nicholson wanted to write a dark novel about Hollywood; why did he have to choose Flynn as his victim?
However, if you are a Flynn completist, and you happen to stumble upon a used copy for no more than 50 cents, you might go ahead and add it to your collection - if only to keep it out of the hands of someone else.. Or it might make a useful thing to start the logs burning in your fireplace on a cold winter night. Or still again, it might be worth keeping in one of your drawers for its limited curiosity value, as yet one more piece of garbage about Errol Flynn that has no redeeming value, and is about as bad a book as it could possibly be.
THE ERROL FLYNN NOVEL
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993
(Paperback Scepter Books, 1994)
This review is copyrighted by L. D. Hurst, 2001.
All rights reserved
No part may be quoted without prior permission of the author.
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