Life Goes to the Movies by Peter Selgin

Posted: April 22, 2010 in Book Reviews
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As its title suggest, Life Goes to the Movies blurs the line between reality and that which takes place on the big screen.  Peter Selgin’s second book of fiction—first novel—explores the delusions and detachments of its characters, as well as their search for identity in the midst of chasing their dreams, at an existential time in American history.

Set primarily in New York, following the Vietnam War, the novel stars Nigel DiPoli and Dwaine Fitzgibbon, two aspiring filmmakers who begin their journey together in art school.  While Nigel is the point-of view character, the story focuses on the antics and rantings of Dwaine—D for death, W for war, A for anarchy, I for insane, N for nightmare, E for end of the world.

Dwaine’s self-created acronym points to his tour of duty in Vietnam and how those events affected him.  Serving as a medic, he witnessed death first-hand and was unable to save the lives of men in his platoon.  Guilt and blame weigh on him following the war, and he refuses to share explicit details of the experience with Nigel, saying only that, “Vietnam was like an exploding dog.”

Dwaine constantly puts up walls, keeping Nigel at a close distance.  The information he’s willing to divulge—family history, for one—seems made up; or, at least, Nigel’s unable to tell if Dwaine’s quoting lines from movies or telling the truth.  This, however, doesn’t disparage Nigel.

His first glimpse of Dwaine evokes comparisons to the rough-and-tumble actors he grew up idolizing.  At this time, Nigel ponders, “There’s something altogether dark about him, what exactly I can’t say, but it’s darker than this sheet of paper I’ve just finished covering with charcoal.” The mystery of who Dwaine is and what he’s been through adds to the appeal.  Nigel follows him to skid row, Hollywood, and a number of low-paying, somewhat film-related jobs, chasing their dream of making movies that matter.

Through all of this, tensions—sexually, between the two of them, and competitively, as they both are infatuated with the same woman—begin to grow and Dwaine’s charm seems to wear thin.  Their ideologies on life and film conflict, widening the gap between them.  Nigel believes a movie is an escape from reality, that its “purpose…is to make life less real, less boring.”  Dwaine, however, believes “movies should make life more real, less phony, that not only are they capable of changing the world, movies should change it.”

Nigel is conflicted about his place in the world.  He wants to stay in New York and live out his dream of making films with Dwaine, though he yearns for love and stability, too. Going back home to Connecticut seems to him like defeat, a cop-out of sorts.  On a visit to his parents’ house, his angst toward the malaise of living back in his hometown surfaces:

After two years in New York I found Barnum unbearable…Compared to those of New York, the streets of my hometown looked gutted and radioactive, as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped there, one of those bombs that levels dreams but leaves buildings and people standing…There was nothing worth filming here.

The writing in Life Goes to the Movie definitely fits the bill.  Selgin excels at blending cinematic imagery into a literary narrative.  Each chapter paints a vivid picture of setting, character, and action, setting the scenes with beautifully written establishing shots and smooth transitions that resemble fade-ins or slow dissolves.  It’s like watching a movie unfold on the page.


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