Review: Basement of Wolves, by Daniel Allen Cox

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

The damage grew day by day. We were doing more than just making a bad movie that caved in to public hunger for violence and revenge. We were destroying me. I had already made a significant effort becoming RR in hopes of saving myself. I recreated his personality in my heart, his life in my head. RR’s memories soon took their place beside mine, supplanted them. Images of ploughs, hay bales, and cracked hands sank into my own childhood. Sneaking mouthfuls of fresh chewing tobacco behind the shed. Washing the bell of a trombone with lake water and then polishing it in the sun. Instant shine. I immersed myself in a love of wolves. I believed there was hope for escaping horrible situations. You could reinvent your life by taking drastic action. But now RR was becoming a fiend. I suspected he would kill someone before the movie was over. Maybe my screen dad, Supreme Asshole. A lone bullet would kill him, but it would really be killing me. There was no way to back out of this disaster contractually. I would have to pursue it to the end, let it consume what was left of my joy and optimism. I could disavow the character, but it would live on in the movies. I would always be the angry guy on the poster. The killer lives on in myth like no other.

***

Michael-David has been, is currently, and will soon be steamrolled by ubiquitous soul-hardening machine called Hollywood—and Hollywood’s wanton succubus, Fame. As a forty-year-old paranoid actor, Michael-David is aware of his distinct middle-child status: too old to be hip, but too young to be distinguished. He worries his best times are behind him, and fears the slow, humiliating death of his career to the faces and bodies of younger, firmer, more finely pieced together archetypes—like his arch-nemesis (of a sort), Pinchable Cheeks. So he hides, for years, avoiding the gun in the script that will forever vilify him, putting an all-too ceremonious capper in his career.

The protagonist in Daniel Allen Cox’s latest novella, Basement of Wolves, is an amped up combination of self-hatred, misanthropy, and a total lack of confidence. Struggling to survive in an industry that thrives on suffering, humiliation, and a near-constant changing of the oh-so-beautiful guard, Michael-David’s journey is a career’s entire arc encapsulated in unfinished screenplays, strange, cradle-robbing love affairs with are-they-or-aren’t-they fans, and a fairly on-the-nose dissection of the machine of self-representation that defines the film industry. When a Chekhov’s gun-style plot twist reveals itself in his latest film, Michael-David experiences a mid-life, mid-career crisis and bails, leaving the film unfinished.

Basement of Wolves plays a great deal with style. Using a first-person narration, Cox experiments, diving into the minds of others and what they may or may not have experienced by using Michael-David’s imagination as the point of entry. While distracting in some places, it’s an intriguing technique that helps flesh out Michael-David’s surrounding world and dramatis personae.

Michael-David himself is an interesting enough character, though not especially original (the aging actor hiding from the world, wanting to deny progress and live as a recluse). This is certainly the case when paired with Poland Radek, the arsonist-artist protagonist of Cox’s last novella, 2010s Krakow Melt. Radek was engaging, a parkour-and-firebombs kind of a guy. Unpredictable. Michael-David, on the other hand, feels more removed, confined within his own multi-layered psychosis.

This is my problem with Basement of Wolves: though I thoroughly enjoyed the novella, it feels less… essential… than Cox’s previous work. There is simply less at stake in this narrative. Michael-David’s struggles, while pertinent to the story being played out, are more passive and filled with self-loathing and disdain for the career spiral he seems caught in—justifiably content to slip in for breakfast at the hotel without being noticed by the Disneyland vacationers that surround him.

And as a final bone of contention, I must tip my hat into the obsessive-compulsive ring of current generation pop culture fact checking:

Now on the twenty-fifth level of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, he kept playing right through moving day, while the movers picked up furniture and boxes and plants around him, creating holes in his environment.

Perhaps this is the nit-picky nerd in me, but we’ve reached saturation point with video games. The knowledge is out there for anyone willing to spend a few minutes looking into things. With IMDb, there’s no longer any excuse for forgetting who starred in what, or when a certain flick dropped into theatres. Likewise, it’s very easy to pop onto Google to discover that there are no levels in a modern Zelda game—dungeons, yes, if you want to get technical (and I clearly do), and never more than ten. When reading, this sort of detail leaps out at me like any time- or space-based anachronism. If a book’s background is pop culture, nail those details like no others.

I would recommend Basement of Wolves, but less for the character of Michael-David and the overall plot, and more for Cox’s concise writing, intriguing perspective shifts, and sharp tone. It’s a bit of a disappointment after the kick to the balls that was Krakow Melt, but Basement of Wolves is still an interesting exercise and certainly a worthwhile single-sitting read.

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