This is an excerpt from my first novel, Little Known Facts, published by Bloomsbury Circus (UK) in January 2013, and by Bloomsbury USA in February 2013. Now also in paperback.
Chapter 1 - Relations
More times than he would care to count, Will has witnessed his father’s ability to silence a room merely by entering it. He has seen his father’s expression change in an instant from utter exhaustion to the bright, sometimes false pleasure of being the center of attention, the person on whom every pair of eyes is fastened, some with desire, others with envy. His father has won coveted annual awards and routinely earned millions of dollars for a few months’ work in front of a camera and has attracted the admiring, sometimes slavish attention of some of the world’s most powerful men and beautiful women. He has achieved the goals that many men set for themselves in adolescence but abandon when they marry younger than they expect to and begin to produce children and acquire mortgages and jobs they aren’t thrilled with and wives who, after a few years, can barely tolerate their bullying insipidity and dispiriting lack of imagination. His father, Renn Ivins, is in his early fifties and divorced from two women who did not tire of him before he tired of them. Will is shorter than his father by two inches and at twenty-six, already witnessing his hairline’s recession, whereas his father still has a full head of movie-star hair. Will believes that even his name is less interesting than his father’s: Billy, though he has asked people to call him Will since his second year of college, and now it is only family – his parents and his sister Anna, and a few childhood friends – who still call him Billy.
His mother was the first woman to marry and be left by his father. She is a pediatrician and for a long time was furious to have been discarded for a younger woman with no obvious merits other than her witless adoration of Renn and the supposed ability to suffer more gracefully the sex scenes that he has pretended since the beginning of his career to dislike – his claim has always been that he submits to them only to avoid an argument with the director. Sex scenes, he has said, are his least favorite scenes to film because they aren’t at all sexy. If you actually paused for a moment to consider it, how could you believe that the actors are enjoying themselves while choreographing intimate acts in front of a film crew, most of them little better than strangers? How many people, in any case, want to be studied and critiqued while making love?
The first Mrs. Ivins has told her children that she was too smart for him, that from the beginning, she saw through his selfishness and self-obsession. Behind it, there was a simple message scribbled on a dingy wall: Pig. Over the intervening years, Will’s sister has tried to defend their father by telling their mother that she thought he was the nicest man she knew, that she missed him when he was gone, that she thought he was more fun than anyone else. Twelve years old when the divorce went through, Will kept his opinions about their father mostly to himself. They weren’t as generous as his sister’s but they weren’t as brutal as their mother’s either.
Despite his easy access to casting agents and directors, Will has not followed his father into a career in film. Four years post-college and he still has not come across anything that fills him with suspense or a sense of purpose for more than a few weeks at a time. He has everything he needs materially and on some mornings when he wakes in his three-bedroom condominium that sits within view of an imposing hilltop museum, a home that he paid for with one check drawn on his trust account, he feels restless and out of sorts. The unearned spoils of his comfortable life, the European stereo system, the nearly weightless down comforter, the copper cooking pots he almost never uses, all seem incidental, as if he has awakened in a privileged stranger’s home. He has used his father’s money but has not wanted to use his influence to sign with an agent and begin the process of auditioning for roles he would never previously have imagined himself pursuing. He is not interested in gaining weight to play a paunchy stoner or an unshaven flunky in a biker movie. He does not want to be cast as the waiter with two lines who serves the film’s stars their lunches. As a witness to and a sometimes-grudging admirer of the great roles his father has played – the noble statesman, the tragic ‘20s film star, the human rights’ worker murdered for his ideals in a deadly, far-away land – Will understands that he would want immediately to be cast as the hero.
“I thought you were going to start applying to law schools,” his sister says when they meet for dinner to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday. It is early October, the weather perfectly mild, the famous southern California smog less dense than usual because of winds off the Pacific. Their mother is in New York attending a convention on new pediatric allergy treatments, their father in New Orleans filming a script he co-wrote with a friend about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Anna is unmarried and boyfriendless. Will has a girlfriend, but she is in Hawaii for a week with two college girlfriends to celebrate their thirtieth birthdays. Danielle is four years older than he is, already divorced. He has never been married and wonders if he will ever want to be.
“I’m still thinking about it,” he says, meeting his sister’s clear green eyes. She is pretty and kind and could have a boyfriend right now if she wanted one, but claims she is too busy. “I took the LSAT two months ago.”
This news surprises her. “Seriously?”
He nods. He hadn’t told her that he was studying for it; he wasn’t sure how he would do.
“How did it go?”
“All right. I got a one sixty-four, which is good enough for a lot of schools, but I think I want to go to Harvard or Yale.”
“You could get in,” she says, cutting a big piece from her steak. It is red in the center, shockingly so. He has always ordered his steaks medium-well. They are both meat-eaters, she more guilty about this than he is. She has tried vegetarianism several times since their teens. He has never tried it, knowing he would give up within a week.
She’s right; he could get in. It is because of their father. The Ivies like the offspring of the famous. Most everyone, especially the non-famous, do. But he wants to be admitted based on his own talents, not his father’s.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe. I think I’m going to retake the LSAT anyway.”
“You’re sure you want to be a lawyer?” she says.
“I think so.”
“I just think it’d be interesting.” He likes the idea of understanding something arcane and potentially tricky, of being a person other people go to for answers.
“Do you want to stand in a courtroom and argue for murderers’ lives in front of a judge and jury?”
“Alleged murderers,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to do criminal law. Probably not. And definitely not capital cases.”
“But that’s where the action is.”
“I don’t need to be in on the action, Anna. Whatever that means.”
She looks at him for a few seconds. “You say that now, Billy, but--”
“But what?” he says, irritated.
“I just think you’d probably want to do something a little more interesting than sit in an office all day surrounded by affidavits and filing cabinets.”
She has always been the better student. She is in her last year of medical school at UCLA, very close to earning her diploma, as their mother did thirty years earlier, but she does not want to practice pediatric medicine; instead, she intends to specialize in family medicine so that she can offer everyone primary care, particularly those who can’t afford it. She has told him that she might even go to Africa someday to volunteer in a clinic. She isn’t interested in the big paychecks that many of her classmates seem to be chasing, in part, Will supposes, because she already has money. Nothing is certain yet, but she will do her residency after she is placed in a good teaching hospital and then she will decide where to go next. Will does not want her to go to Africa or some other place where he would not want to visit her. For a while it bothered him that she has done something so different with her life than anything he has ever considered doing, but over the years, his adolescent jealousy has turned to a kind of alarmed admiration.