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ON BOOKS: Follow Epperson’s latest novel (romance)

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You might think you’ve mastered Tom Epperson’s work.

I did it. I might even call myself a world expert on Epperson’s work — I’ve read all of his published novels and seen nearly every film he’s written. Somehow I missed “Camouflage,” a 2001 crime film that stars Leslie Nielsen in a relatively straightforward dramatic role – the only review I’ve seen of it compared it to “Miami Blues”.

The reviewer – writing as ‘Vern the Outlaw Film Critic’ – said it was the kind of film that made him “think it must be very hard to be a screenwriter, because I can kind of imagine it’s a decent movie if it was executed completely differently.”

And I thought, yeah, that sounds like Epperson. And that made me want to see “Camouflage”. (It’s now streaming on Tubi. I don’t understand Tubi.)

Epperson is best known as the childhood friend of Billy Bob Thornton of Malvern who accompanied Thornton on pre-breakthrough trips to New York and Los Angeles. They often collaborated on screenplays – they wrote the remarkable ‘One False Move’ (1992), the Robert Duvall-James Earl Jones racial identity drama ‘A Family Thing’ (1996), ‘The Gift” (2000) and HBO’s gritty junkie thriller “Don’t Look Back” (1996). Epperson also wrote the screenplay for 1997’s “A Gun, a Car, a Blonde” with that film’s director, his wife, Stefani Ames.

Beginning in 2008, Epperson began publishing novels. His debut, “The Kind One,” a gangster tale set in 1930s Los Angeles, was supposed to become a movie starring Casey Affleck, fresh off his role in “Gone, Baby, Gone.” Affleck moved on to a similar project, “The Killer Inside Me,” based on a book by Jim Thompson, one of the writers I would offer as a model for Epperson.

In 2012, Epperson released “Sailor,” another story about a tough man with a heart of gold that some people have compared to Cormac McCarthy. “Hard But Not Dark” was the cover text offered by Lee Child, and it’s as good a succinct review as any.

He followed up in 2018 with “Roberto to the Dark Tower Came,” a parable about the inevitability of failure in the jungles of South America that echoes Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Robert’s poem Browning “Child Roland to the Dark Tower”. Came.”

So if you had asked me about Epperson’s work, I can express some ideas. It’s smart, violent, and just offbeat enough not to be completely commercial. I like his books; he is a writer who understands rhythm and Flaubert’s axiom that there are no synonyms, that there is only one right word and a million wrong ones.

I didn’t expect a romance novel from her.

Although, to be fair, I wouldn’t have called Epperson’s new book “Make Believe” (Alaya Press, $28.95) a “romance novel” if I hadn’t seen it referenced. this way on amazon.com. But that’s a different kind of story for Epperson; its protagonist, screenwriter Dustin Prewitt, feels like a rom-com character, and the story has plenty of obligatory rom-com beats. It also has a very real grief line and violence. Epperson calls it “lightweight,” and ultimately it is, but it’s never stupid.

Prewitt, a failed athlete who landed in Hollywood after publishing a promising and unseen first novel, lives a glamorous and hedonistic life in the Hollywood Hills, in part because he has had some sporadic successes in the profession that he chose, but mostly because he is married to A-list movie star Laura Keene, who is also heiress to one of the nation’s largest fortunes. But early in the book, the woman disappears, leaving a suicide note on the beach, accusing Dustin of refusing to dance with her the afternoon before.

As you’d expect, this upsets Dustin, but not too much – he expects to inherit his fortune, and their relationship was notoriously tumultuous anyway. Soon, an old friend from a long time ago – the model for the protagonist of his novel – shows up and moves in. And Dustin meets and falls in love with Penny Ruemmler, a clothing store clerk who rescues animals in her spare time.

There’s a sweetness to the story, but it never gets sickening, and the fact that Laura’s body is never found adds suspense to the book’s third act.

It’s a very enjoyable and very readable novel that could be translated into a great movie. But this is not a case of Epperson turning around to give a putative audience what he thinks he wants.

There’s a lot to think about here; all characters – even the most minor – are entitled to complications. It’s not quite Hollywood satire in the sense of Michael Tolkin’s “The Player,” but it does have some of those qualities.

I can imagine it being a great movie if they get the details right.

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