The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson

Flights of fancy and unnatural selections
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Dodos, quacks, duckies and the hint of a turkey or two throng the pages of Geoff Nicholson's delightful and clever new comic novel. "Auteur of the Future" is the wild claim on the business card of Rick McCartney, a film-school graduate pitching his turkey of an idea for an art-house costume drama about a 17th-century Englishman who has acquired a dodo. That man is William Draper, a student of medicine at Oxford University, who is vainly searching for a dodo to breed with his own, to stave off the extinction of the species.

Draper is sent down from Oxford when his skin develops a blistering reaction to sunlight that his tutors are unable to cure. He shares lodgings with his ageing dodo in the seedy London district of Alsatia, where he spies on quacks and mountebanks, reporting their hocus potions to the haughty Royal College of Physicians, who step in with floggings or executions.

A peg-legged psychic helps Rick establish a connection between Draper's peculiar history and his own dodo obsession. On the flight back to LA from a surreal dodo tour of Draper's haunts in London and Oxford, Rick is eased out of a panic attack by Henry Cadwallader. Henry is a doctor chaperoning his daughter Dorothy on a make-or-break assault on Hollywood producers and agents. Tweedily English, Henry is modest but proper, trying hard not to think of what his daughter might have to do to make her name in Tinseltown.

While Dorothy spectacularly fails to become a hot starlet, her dad changes into linen and silk, is head-hunted by an agent, beds an actress-turned-realtor, loses his moral equilibrium and tramples all over his Hippocratic oath. How this happens is the genius of Nicholson's superb novel, which is choked with coincidence but relieved of contrivance by its slick, tongue-in-cheek plotting.

Plain weirdness segues into historical gravity and back into delicious farce. Short and snappy chapters alternate between the three narratives to keep the pace up without losing their distinct voices.

The chief delight of The Hollywood Dodo is that everybody practises some form of deception (except for the unabashed porn king at the centre of Nicholson's deft dénouement). A running gag about blow-jobs and auditions keeps an idea of corruption centre-stage, but Nicholson subtly pushes the theme further.

Draper's festering skin, Rick's compromised ambitions and Henry's easily-broken principles all mutate into positive changes that, with a sly nod to this book's extinct centrepiece, is the very stuff of evolution. Those who fail to adapt (such as the frumpily petulant Dorothy, the sulky catalyst for much of what occurs) simply fall away into obsolescence. Nicholson must have enjoyed clustering his actors around the dodo, which becomes the perfect emblem for a cast of feisty characters whose original ambitions and careers are all either flightless - or teetering on the brink of extinction.