Owen King’s debut novel, “Double Feature,” is a sprawling, sometimes uneven novel that takes awhile to penetrate. Once you get into it, the story and characters move in a memorable dance between absurdism and apple pie America, blurring the lines of each.
Sam Dolan is a college film student working on his final project. Like every college film student, he’s convinced that his final project will be part Wells, part Cocteau, part Bergman, and part his-own-indescribable-genius. We see Sam tweaking his screenplay, lining up his actors, raising money for production, and anxiously awaiting the chance to realize his spectacular vision. He and his cast–and a rich acquaintance he allows to be Assistant Director in exchange for thousands of production dollars–finally shoot the film. Sam spends hours editing it, making it as true to his vision as it can be. He screens it for some friends, who tell him it is really good.
Then there’s a fire in the film school, and his edits are lost. Thankfully, his AD has preserved the film on DVD, and Sam hurries off to show the film to his biggest benefactors.
The film they see is verrrrrrrry different from the one Sam assembled.
Years pass, and Sam has given up on serious filmmaking. He shoots wedding videos, and for a few hundred dollars more, he’ll produce a special “Director’s Cut,” in which he edits the film like “Citizen Kane,” for example. (One client asks whether he could do a Sam Peckinpah-style Director’s Cut. (People are weird.))
“Double Vision” itself resembles a strangely edited film. We start with Sam producing the film. Other sections go back as far as Sam’s parents first meeting, and as far forward as the present day.
At the core of Sam’s inner turmoil is his relationship with his father, a one-time B-Movie star named Booth Dolan. Booth’s films were often just terrible, but he showed up, played his parts, and ended up part of innumerable drive-in double-features. As a man, he’s larger than life, a tall, barrel-chested presence with a commanding voice. Once his acting prime has past, he exists on voice-overs and signed memorabilia.
Booth Dolan is a genuinely nice guy. Like all of us, he’s also genuinely flawed. He and Sam’s mom divorce, and Booth remarries and begets a daughter. Booth and Sam’s mom are fine with this–they remain friends–but Sam’s inability to forgive leads to a snobbish disdain for his father’s canon of work.
As we bounce through different timeline points, we begin to see how these characters became the way they are by the book’s end. The non-linear narrative enhances the story in this case. If things unfolded chronologically, we wouldn’t be as curious why Sam is so filled with disrespect and artistic loathing for his father. By going back even before Sam’s birth, his parents’ evolution becomes clearer. His father wasn’t always as devious as Sam has imagined, nor was his mother as saintlike.
It’s a long journey from the first page to the last, and it’s not always an easy one. Once jumping from era to era becomes normal within the book’s context, we are free simply to ride along. As we are exposed to each unique point in time–some of them from viewpoints other than Sam’s–we notice patterns of behavior, and characters who span from point to point, intertwinings unnoticed by Sam or Booth, the novel’s two main characters.
The ending ties up Double Feature’s various threads nicely, but without being saccharine.
Sam is not the easiest protagonist to like. He’s sullen and bitter much of the time, while Booth–the object of Sam’s derision–comes off as being charismatic and warmhearted. Booth is only a villain in Sam’s mind: the true antagonist in “Double Feature” is circumstance. Sometimes, people are in the right place at the wrong time, and unfortunate things just happen. There’s no malice aforethought. No evil. Just plain old “things sometimes happen.”
“Double Feature” is an apt title for (appropriately) two reasons. First, there are plenty of opposite numbers in play (Sam considers himself an auteur, while his father acted in crappy films, e.g.). The other reason is simple: “Double Feature” will appeal more to film buffs than non-buffs. I minored in Film Theory and Criticism, plus I’m a dork with no life, so there were numerous times where I vocally agreed with something a character said. When Sam refers to one of my favorite films, which nobody I know has seen–Bergman’s “Fanny & Alexander”–I geeked a little. When, later, he refers to watching the eight-hour director’s cut made for Swedish television, I laughed as only one with that version on DVD could laugh. All of the film references and lore probably bought “Double Feature” an extra star from this film-geek.
Regardless, while “Double Feature” will challenge you at times, in the end, it is worth it: a rewarding, well-told story, and an auspicious first novel for Owen King.