Me and Orson Welles, By Robert Kaplow

One young man's encounter with a citizen on the verge of genius

Reviewed,Susie Boyt
Thursday 18 December 2008 01:00

Me and Orson Welles is an enchanting coming-of-age story set in 1930s Manhattan, on Broadway to be exact. Its hero, 17-year-old New Jersey-born Richard Samuels, has a great many ideas about himself, all steeped in stage and screen. Gazing in the mirror, Richard routinely detects "the earnestness of Gary Cooper, the playfulness of Cary Grant, and maybe just a whisper of Astaire". Might he, too, be somebody? The Jewish Noël Coward, say? He ponders star quality. When did it happen? How did you know?

Richard is a romantic lead waiting to happen. The girls he meets say just the right things, such as: "I'd give my blood to write any notes as beautiful as the first five notes to 'Small Hotel'". But they just want advice on how to get dates with his pals. "Pounce," his sharp friends tell him, on to the "librarian"-type women who do come his way – but it's not his style.

Then something utterly amazing happens. Walking past a crowd assembled outside the old Comedy Theatre on West 41st Street, Richard glimpses the 22-year-old Orson Welles, throwing a temper tantrum. Welles, on the cusp of stardom, is mounting a "lean and brutal" version of Julius Caesar as director, producer and star. His Caesar will be full of the violence of the Elizabethan era, he insists. After telling three pragmatic lies – that he can play the ukulele, that he can sing and that he adored Welles's 60-minute radio Hamlet which cut "To be or not to be" – Richard finds himself with a walk-on part in Welles's historical drama. How on earth will he combine that with his high-school commitments? What will his mother say?

A whirlwind week unfolds, in which the lustre of genius meets an adolescent's high yearning. Robert Kaplow develops his hero's sexual awakening with humour and delicacy and the seductive world of the theatre is shown in all its exasperating, irresistible glory. Welles, ogre-ish, brilliant and partial to ballerinas, travels across Manhattan in an ambulance to beat traffic: a fitting image of the life of a star.

Me and Orson Welles is a charming novel. Its vivid optimism and deep interest in the fledgling stages of love and fame captivate and cheer. So enjoyable and reviving a book should be rationed and savoured over many days.

Susie Boyt's 'My Judy Garland Life' will be Radio 4's Christmas Book of the Week

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments