Outside of Hollywood, few writers with tiny bodies of work can develop legendary reputations on the basis of jobs they had little control over, and that ended up far from their original intentions. Hampton Fancher started out as an actor and wound up writing the Denzel Washington-Robert Townsend vehicle The Mighty Quinn (1989) and writing and directing the 1999 serial-poisoner movie The Minus Man, but his status as a cult figure derives from his having received Philip K. Dick’s blessing to adapt his novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? into the movie Blade Runner. (Fancher has co-screenwriting and executive-producer credits on the finished film, but the director, Ridley Scott, brought in another writer to substantially reshape his screenplay.) Now, at 74, Fancher has published his first book of fiction, which is the kind of work that would get a younger, hungrier writer acclaimed as “promising.” Many of the short stories here don’t really work, some never get off the ground, and a few barely qualify as stories. But the book will probably add luster to Fancher’s maverick aura on the basis of sheer weirdness alone. There’s enough sinister atmosphere and oddball shenanigans here to fill a season’s worth of midnight movies.
The most refreshing thing about Fancher’s brand of surrealism is the way he just jumps right in, with no buildup or throat-clearing attempts to explain whatever freakishness he’s describing. In a story set in the present day, a washed-up reporter trying to crawl his way back receives a plum assignment: He’s asked to conduct an exclusive interview with Howard Hughes aboard the airplane Hughes has been riding around in since his death 38 years ago. The reporter takes the job with scarcely a thought: “Usually dying didn’t work well for people, but for Howard it was different, and maybe that was an angle a journalist could use.” The most ambitious (or at least longest) story here is narrated by a man who loses his job tending bar at a Manhattan nightclub called the Torture Chamber and heads back home to Mississippi, picking up a wandering black man who seems to live in a daze and communicates only in barks. (The narrator tries to get a job exhibiting him in a carnival as a mutant wild man.) Fancher seems to be going for the steamy, squalid, unreliable-and-probably-certifiable-narrator feel of a Jim Thompson story, but like the rest of the stories here, it’s a chilly piece of work, totally lacking in eroticism, and without that sordid heat to hold the pieces together, it just feels like a bunch of bizarre scenes laid out by a fun-house operator struggling to keep topping himself.
Fancher clearly prides himself on having a broad imagination, and it’s a relief to come across a screenwriter with literary aspirations whose work—unlike, say, Bruce Wagner’s—betrays an interest in life beyond the outskirts of Rodeo Drive. Still, the book is at its brightest when Fancher is writing about show-business figures who’ve fallen from grace to the margins of the entertainment industry. The Howard Hughes story is actually most interesting in the opening paragraphs charting the career path of the reporter, who was once a hot name at a magazine called The Sisters Of Vindictive Mockery. The most fully realized character here is the title hero of “The Climacteric Of Zackary Ray,” a has-been old actor described as the Kevin Spacey or John Malkovich of his day, though “he lacked their range. He was from an older school of acting. No school… He was the best of his generation at catfooted lassitude bordering on the malefic.” In another story, a wannabe actor reincarnated as a snail avenges himself on an unhelpful agent, cuckolding the man, as best he can, by slowly crawling across the length of his wife’s body. Though it ends with the narrator receiving a close-up view of the sole of the agent’s shoe, the tone is modestly triumphant. People who write for the movies learn to take what they can.