Keep It Real
by Bill Bryan
Published by Bleak House Books
310 pages, 2007
Reviewed by James R. Winter
Life has kicked Ted Collins in the groin a few too many times. His wife left him for a richer man. He lost his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His best friend is an ex-girlfriend who became a lesbian. The court supervises all contact between him and his daughter. Worst of all, he's been promoted at work.
Wait a minute: Doesn't a promotion mean more money and prestige? Well, yes, but it also means that Ted is now the co-executive producer of television's biggest "reality" series, The Mogul. Consider how Ted describes his job before he gets the news:
The accepted term for the genre that these shows occupy is "Reality," but I know a bit too much about how these shows are made to describe them as such. In fact I refuse to describe them at all -- whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living these days, I tell them that I am an IT systems integrator. It's the perfect cover, because although I have no idea what that means, no one's been bored enough to ask.
Of course, Ted's new position means a new house and a nicer car than his old battered Subaru. But it also makes him an overpaid babysitter for Roger Dominus, the spectacularly combed-over billionaire star of The Mogul. If Dominus sounds suspiciously like Donald Trump in The Apprentice, there's a good reason for that. Author Bill Bryan is a former Night Court writer who's been in Hollywood for almost 25 years. And apparently, he doesn't like reality series. Not one bit.
Keep It Real is a scathing satire of the world of reality TV, thinly disguised as a crime novel. Every turn in this tale provides one more excuse to rip away at the façade of today's hottest programming genre. And no, author Bryan doesn't care if this offends The Donald. But if Roger Dominus is anything to judge by, Trump probably wants to buy the rights to, and then retitle the book Trump: The Parody.
The story here, such as it is, concerns the disappearance of a fetching young Maxim magazine model named Patrice. It just so happens that Ted was one of the last people to see Patrice alive. At the time, her boyfriend, a rapper known as Boney, wasn't feeling the love. So Patrice felt his hand upside her face. Naturally, someone who knew of this assault would go to the police with it, after Patrice goes missing.
This is Ted Collins, however, who sees Patrice as his ticket out from under the fat thumb of his boss, Trevor Bane. Almost as powerful as Dominus, Bane is 10 times as egotistical, and he is the executive producer of The Mogul as well as a host of other reality shows that most people are embarrassed to admit they watch. You know the ones. The kind that make Survivor look like Masterpiece Theatre.
Bryan doesn't spare the world of hip-hop in these pages, either. Boney, née Raymond Bonaparte, can barely string a coherent sentence together. (I suspect Bryan is not a 50 Cent fan, but I could be wrong.) The author even gives the singer's album a mush-mouth title: What Duh Fuh You Lookin At? In order to get close to Boney and prove that he killed Patrice -- or else had her killed -- Ted convinces Bane and the ex-Mrs. Collins' new hubby, Richard Slatkin, to let The Mogul promote Boney's latest CD during the next week's episode. Slatkin is Boney's high-powered attorney and owner of the home where the rapper and Patrice had words in front of Ted.
Got all that? Good. Because it only gets even more complicated from there on out. Boney is protected and controlled by a smooth-talking record company exec named Lovey Mack. If you think Dominus is a thinly disguised Trump, Bryan doesn't even bother hiding Mack's true identity: former Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight. Even their police records are identical.
Ted wants to use Patrice's disappearance to resurrect his career as an investigative journalist. To do this, he enlists the aid of Deborah Sullivan, the aforementioned lesbian ex-lover and best friend, who also happens to be a freelance camera operator. Deb agrees to help Ted out, with the caveat being that this is the dumbest idea she's ever heard. She's not the only one who thinks so. LAPD Detective Susan DeRosa thinks it's massively stupid, too. However, she can't resist a man whose idea of an anonymous tip is to phone Crimestoppers in a Foghorn Leghorn voice.
Yes, I said Foghorn Leghorn.
"Detective DeRose," she answers.
"Ah say ah say, little darling. It is yours truly."
"Oh, hello. Or should I say, 'Cock-a-doodle-do'?"
"Ah regret that factors beyond my control have forced me to adopt this most undignified demeanor." I drop into Foghorn's most seductive tones. "Perhaps one day we can meet under more agreeable conditions."
"Am I being hit on by poultry?"
This approach must work, because DeRose and Ted's daughter are the only two characters in Keep It Real who do not earn Collins' acidic descriptions. And yet Ted Collins functions well as an unreliable narrator. He himself thinks Boney is guilty of murder, yet the rapper's depression and worry come through--mostly in monosyllabic grunts, it's true, but they do come through. Bane, Dominus and Mack are exaggerated blowhards as seen by a man who harbors nothing but contempt for them. Still, you can see how shallow Dominus is when he talks with Lovey Mack. Never mind that the two are one and the same. Mack just has a prison record.
Eventually, when Patrice is found, the bullets start flying. This is a crime novel, after all. Collins is shocked repeatedly at the lengths to which his boss and Dominus are willing to go to milk the ensuing carnage for every ratings point it's worth. They even blackmail the TV network into pre-empting its highest-rated hospital drama in order to broadcast a news special about the death and destruction surrounding the promotion of Boney's newest album. It's a Very Special Episode of The Mogul.
Bill Bryan starts out slow, and then gradually accelerates his story. However, what the early part of Keep It Real lacks in action, it more than makes up for in the absurd. Some of this is built on Ted Collins' sarcasm regarding his unchosen profession and his personal life. Much of it, though, is born from the cutthroat world of reality television. Several of the most bizarre moments in the book come when author Bryan, through Collins, reveals how much of reality is "scripted." Much more is manipulation and clever editing, and none of it is real. | May 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. Winter makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. Experience his unique brand of dementia at Northcoast Exile.