Review

The Manhattan Beach Project
A Novel
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962–64)
Simon & Schuster
February 2005
352 pages
$24.00

    Reviewed by Amy Muscoplat (Republic of Kiribati 1997–99)

    PETER LEFCOURT’s The Manhattan Beach Project is a hilarious, off the cuff take on reality television. Lefcourt’s novel takes the story of one Charlie Berns, known from Lefcourt’s previous book, The Deal, and brings him back to life as an out of work, former Oscar-winning, Hollywood producer.
         This time around, Charlie, who barely has enough money for gas, is hanging out at a Debtor’s Anonymous meeting in the West Los Angeles area of Brentwood, and is living in his nephew Lionel’s pool house. That is, until his nephew tells him to move out so that his nephew’s live-in personal organizer/girlfriend can have the pool house as her office. Besides hanging out at the local library and dodging his Vietnamese debt consolidation counselor, Charlie’s run out of options in this town.
         The Debtor’s Anonymous meeting turns up a connection, and Charlie meets an eccentric and well-connected guy, named Kermit Fenster. Fenster claims connections in the State Department and CIA. With Fenster’s connections, Charlie wants to produce a reality show in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, called Warlord. Fenster coaches Charlie on how to get the basics of financing this project dealt with so they can show up, via Air Kazakhstan, and begin casting the television series. They arrive in Central Asia, hook up with their warlord, figure out how to cast the rest of the family, and begin to shoot footage for the show, all with Charlie learning along the way who he needs to pay off to get things done, who he needs to appease to not get killed, and where he can go to get an Oblomov to drink.
         Warlord is being brought to the American viewing public, and piped into their homes, via ABCD, a small undercover division of ABC, conveniently tucked away in Manhattan Beach. ABCD is dedicated solely to producing extreme reality shows, though it’s so undercover that not even the employees at ABC know of its existence. And the few that do know, won’t admit to it.
         The show follows the life of Izbul Kharkov, a wanted warlord in The Stans, who follows all there is to know about The Sopranos via his satellite dish. Izbul can quote Alex Trebek of Jeopardy, use television slang, and appear to be busy running a household, a business, and a warlordship, simultaneously.
         He’s the kind of guy who shoots camels and gets grenades thrown into his compound from rival warlords. His interesting take on American language involves mostly imitating television lines, swearing, and threatening anyone who upsets him that he will “cut him a new one.” He’s all for being the star of Warlord, thinking he’ll be the next Tony Soprano.
          The reality of this warlord family’s show is that Izbul’s wife has not left her room in a long, long, long, long time. His Ukrainian mistress lives in the house, and one of his sons, Utkar Kharkov, aka Ali Mohammed, spends his whole time reading the Koran until he runs off to join the Taliban.
         Into this mix, throw a Polish film crew doing a documentary about the ecological disaster of the disappearing Aral Sea who decide to take a break from their depressing project to join the Warlord set. They reason that the Aral Sea will still be disappearing in a few months anyhow, so they’ll get back to it later.
         Charlie, looking for some help in producing the show, hooks up with one Buzz (aka Barrett) Bowden, an AWOL Peace Corps Volunteer who gives up on building septic tanks in Samarkand for the more lucrative business of being a hash dealer.
    Charlie and Buzz, decide that since no one at ABCD, and very few people in America even know where Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan are, let alone understand the language, they can create their own storylines and subtitles.
         They create characters and storylines that American audiences are so plugged into that Warlord becomes the number one rated show in the U.S.. All of America wants to know what’s going on with the wife, who they’ve stated has gone away to get a facelift (since she still hasn’t left her room for them to film her) and the Ukrainian mistress.The studio is hyping the upcoming episodes, and “what will happen between Izbul’s wife and mistress, when the wife finally returns from being away?”
         Buzz and Charlie have written subtitles that ratchet up the drama and suspense, but only work for audiences who don’t understand Uzbek, and the network chooses to ignore the one or two letters they receive from Uzbeks stating that the subtitles do not translate what Izbul and his cohorts are actually saying.
         Then the crew from Entertainment Tonight wants to come do an exclusive interview with Izbul’s wife, and Charlie and Buzz frantically try to keep everything from crashing.They find a manic-depressive, hash-addicted hooker in a burka, who Buzz thinks will make a great stand in for Izbul’s wife, if they can just manage to keep her supplied with lithium and hash.
         True to the nature of extreme reality television and the public’s thirst for the newest, hottest thing on television, by the time Charlie gets in trouble, and the international political crisis and circus comes to a head, Warlord is passé, the news lasts only a short time, and then it’s on to the next season’s reality based program.
         Lefcourt’s prose is tight and clean, wickedly funny at times, and a great lambasting of the public’s thirst for reality television. The situations Charlie finds himself in are ones that any intrepid traveler, or person interested in rogue politics and Americans abroad would appreciate. Lefcourt’s wit and the occasional quirky character sketch make this book just plain funny. His plot is complicated enough to keep you interested, and the dialogue between the guys out of the studios in Burbank, and the reality on the ground in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan keep you wondering what next.

    Amy Muscoplat, MLIS, MFA. lives near the beach in Santa Monica, California. She’s a children’s librarian and owns Children’s Creative Services, a company dedicated to “turning kids into cool bookworms.”