CASTINE — Hollywood is the setting and subject of “Girl of My Dreams,” the first novel by local writer Peter Davis.
Davis, a longtime journalist and filmmaker, made his name with such hard-hitting documentaries as “Hearts and Minds,” about the Vietnam War, and “The Selling of the Pentagon,” an investigation into the U.S. Defense Department’s public relations efforts.
The former won Davis an Academy Award; the latter prompted Congress to launch several of its own investigations, including one on Davis himself.
Given the seriousness of those and other works by 78-year-old Davis, including reporting from Iraq and books on Nicaragua and America’s poor, La La Land might seem an odd topic for his first fiction project — from which Davis will be reading at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, at Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor.
In fact, Davis grew up on the fringes of Hollywood. Like Owen Jant, the main character in “Girl of My Dreams,” his parents were screenwriters.
But this isn’t personal. Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger raised their son on a ranch 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Davis explained in a recent interview, so the city was always otherworldly to him.
Still, it’s a subject he knows well. Davis read Variety magazine as he grew up. Also, his first wife (who died in 1974) was novelist Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, daughter of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles.
“I knew from her what it was like to be at the center of Hollywood, and I knew how much I wasn’t at that center,” Davis said. “I had to have distance to write this novel. A person who grew up at the center of the novel would write either a memoir or a thinly disguised fiction about people he or she had known.”
Yet it took many years and another 3,000 miles of separation for Davis to start crafting his yarn about the movie town and all its accompanying vices.
He moved to Castine in 1990, and later that decade started seriously researching “Girl of My Dreams.” The book, published by Open Road Media and sprawling across 474 pages, chronicles the movie biz circa 1930.
Jant, a naive screenwriter, is infatuated with movie star Palmyra Millevoix, a dream girl with socialist leanings and a mysterious European background. Jant’s boss is Mossy Zangwill, a powerful studio exec who sends him to San Francisco to prepare a script about the earthquake of 1906.
By the time Jant returns, he instead wants to pen a film about the present day strike by San Francisco’s longshoremen.
There’s plenty of pulp — violent riots, one-night stands, scumbag husbands, a stuntman’s suicide in the first chapter — but Davis gives his story a backbone by focusing on the Depression, the labor movement’s many faces and the anti-communist frenzy of the time.
Its tension comes from the tug between glimmer and grit, salaciousness and seriousness, disaster films and headier pictures about collective bargaining.
Toward the beginning, Jant is driving to the studio when he encounters a mass of people standing outside, hoping for a day’s work.
“I had learned to ignore them,” he says, “real people wishing only to become part of the fakery.”
Yet one page later, Jant discovers a group of Mexican women who, in sweatshop conditions, stitch costumes for the studio’s films. No fakery there.
The novel could be read as a meditation on the artifice Davis encountered as a journalist covering Washington bureaucrats and Latin American revolutionaries. It could also work as a more direct comment on the state of films then and now.
“Nostalgia in a novel, especially in a first-person narration, has to be earned,” wrote author John Irving, one of several literary titans who provided promotional quotes about the book. “A fast-paced novel of ambition, deceit, and disillusionment, ‘Girl of My Dreams’ is as thrilling as a hit movie; yet it’s also an indictment of the way the movie business works.”
In February, Davis provided a more direct window into his views on the film industry. He wrote a piece for The Nation magazine tracking the decline of women in roles of screenwriter and director.
The point hits home for Davis, whose mother was nominated for an Academy Award for her adaptation of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in the 1940s. Now, Davis wrote, it remains difficult for women to earn similar distinctions.
No wonder, perhaps, that Davis made Palmyra Millevoix, the title character in “Girl of My Dreams,” a complex and assertive woman, an antidote to the boys’ club Hollywood was and is.