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“Chuckerman Makes a Movie: A Novel,” by Francie Arenson Dickman


The protagonist of this comic novel, David Melman, called Chuckerman by his friends, is not quite old enough to be having a mid-life crisis at age 35. But he feels like he has bottomed out in his work in celebrity and perfume branding, as well as his romantic relationship with a younger pop star. 

The one thing that gives him consistent happiness is his 1977 Cadillac, inherited from his grandfather. 

David would like to write something other than fluff to promote celebrities, so when his sister suggests he enroll in a film-writing class, he says he’ll think about it. In fact she has already signed him up for the class, so he agrees to at least go to the first session. He probably would have dropped out right after that, but an impromptu reading of a bit of his script at his sister’s bakery goes over better than expected, so David returns for the next session.

David’s first thought is a story featuring himself as a perfumier who loses his sense of smell. The class instructor, Laurel, however, encourages him to write about the Cadillac. Turning the car story into a screenplay requires David to dredge up old memories of his grandparents and other family members. 

The time period is the late 1970s, when David’s grandparents, Slip and Estelle Melman, moved to Miami to live in a community of mainly Jewish retirees. He wonders how to turn their family saga into a script. In film class, Laurel presents the idea that every story needs a catalyst, the “first domino” that causes the rest of the action to fall into place. David thinks a fight that he remembers might provide the needed momentum. 

Slip passes much of his time in the cigar smoke-laden men’s card room, where the young David is unofficially allowed to observe and occasionally bet a quarter that his grandfather gives him. One afternoon, Slip and Big Sid are trading typical card room banter that turns hostile when the barbs turn to insults about each other’s wives. Slip finally has had enough and punches Big Sid. Sid is not seriously hurt, but the incident gets Slip banned from the card room for a year.

Estelle meanwhile thinks her retirement years would be enhanced if she finally learns how to drive, an activity that will try everyone’s patience. Trading her usual high heels for sneakers doesn’t improve her driving skills, and when she sneaks out with the Cadillac to practice, everyone is so concerned that a search party of family and the complex’s security guard goes out looking for her. 

Estelle is managing fairly well until she sees that a man is following her as she heads home. She tries to elude him, speeding up as she drives onto the parking deck, hitting a wall and doing major damage to the front end of the car. She is just shaken up a bit but is taken by ambulance to the hospital for observation. Everyone’s concern for her well-being finally causes them to drop their grudge against Slip, and his card room privileges are reinstated.

An unexpected consequence of taking the writing class is a romance with Laurel, the instructor. This presents many complications, not the least of which is the fact that Laurel is Mormon and David is Jewish. Laurel’s thoughts about converting to Judaism give David a reason other than attraction to become involved with her. When she invites him out after class for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, because she “thought all Jews liked Chinese food,” David isn’t sure whether she is being anti-Semitic or attempting to flirt. It ends up Laurel is meeting with a rabbi mainly because of a film project rather than serious intentions to convert, though she has begun to think about it.

David is inexperienced when it comes to relationships with women, so his attempts to impress Laurel are often more humorous than romantic. His meager cooking skills lead him to try to cheer her up one evening with his own dessert creation, a banana boat, consisting of a Snicker’s bar put on top of a sliced banana and then heated in the toaster oven. It is a major sign of commitment when he buys a coffee maker. 

Hanging over their relationship is Laurel’s possible move from New York to Los Angeles. She has just completed a film script and is shopping it around with producers. Whether or not David would go with her, or offer her a reason to stay, are all theoretical until the script is accepted, and the film company not only wants to buy Laurel’s script, but offers her a job working on films in L.A.

Laurel wants David to grow up, get rid of the Cadillac, which she sees as a security blanket binding him to the past, and move with her. David can’t imagine moving, but attempts to give the Cadillac to Laurel as a gift and as a sign that he is trying to move on. Laurel doesn’t even know how to drive, and she is angry about his lack of commitment to her and gets out of the car and hails a cab. When David realizes that she left her messenger bag and purse in the Cadillac, he understands that the story isn’t over yet.

This is an impressive first novel, weaving the two stories and time periods without becoming confusing. The friendly bickering and scenes of Jewish family life will be familiar to many readers. If you are looking for some light reading for the summer months, “Chuckerman Makes a Movie” would be a good choice.

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