West of Eden, by Jean Stein: Book Review

I’ve been a movie buff for a long time. For a time in my early twenties I actually studied the Oscars. Seriously, I studied them. I got to the point where if you named a year from 1950 to present I could have told you the move that won Best Picture that year and who won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. I was getting good at the early years, 1929-1940 but I wasn’t super confident about them yet. This was my Miss America talent and I was very proud of it.

Well I have a life now and I’m kinda spotty about that talent these days, but the fascination with Hollywood has remained, even if the modern version of celebrity isn’t nearly as much fun or glamorous to people-watch for me. So you can imagine that when I heard about West of Eden my ears immediately perked up. Five nonfiction stories about the seedy underbelly of old Hollywood? Sign me up, I am in!

What I hadn’t realized is that Jean Stein employs the oral history technique–which is to say, many voices with insider knowledge tell the story at the same time. Short or longish paragraphs (or a couple of paragraphs at most) set the stage for something about the story before someone else’s comment picks up the narrative thread. Except the way Stein has pieced these comments together is absolutely maddening. They don’t create much of a narrative at all. On top of that, it’s virtually impossible to understand who the person speaking even is or what they have to do with the story. I was done with the first section completely before I realized there’s an index for all the people who contribute, but even the descriptions there are sometimes so vague as to be useless. Occasionally you might get clues as to what role someone played in the larger story from the comments of someone else, but even then it’s usually after the original commenter has been introduced and discussed as if you already know who they are. It seems Stein is assuming you already know who everyone is.

That same assumption of familiarity extends to the topics that are supposed to be the centerpieces of each section. The entire first section, about the Doheny family and their involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal and how it may have led to the death of their beloved son, never really directly addresses the scandal at all, and it only circuitously discusses the murder. If you don’t already know the specifics of what happened, there’s no way you can piece it together from this mess. I had to resort to a Google search to find out what happened just so I could understand.

Stein herself contributes a single comment to this first section. Although it is brief and to the point, it makes you wonder why she didn’t just employ this technique more if she was going to stay beholden to the idea of an oral history approach. It certainly would have allowed her to provide some kind of framework or exposition. Instead, she seems determined to remain in the background and let her contributors do the work for her. Except that they don’t.

Things continued in much the same vein during the second section, about the Warners, and I found I was struggling to care or to continue at all. When I caught myself Googling more information to get the gist of what was happening, I knew the madness had to stop. I put this book down and I’m perfectly comfortable never revisiting it. If I ever feel curious I’ll either do an internet search and save myself the aggravation or wait for an author who doesn’t assume I already know all the details.

Grade: D-

West of Eden by Jean Stein

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