Literature professor Perry Moss has slowly amassed it all: a steady job at Haviland College in southern Vermont, a successful writing career, and a beautiful wife, Jane. But everything changes when a television exec contacts Perry about turning one of his short stories into a network series, and he and Jane leave the comforts of the Northeast to give it a shot in Hollywood. The pilot episode a hit, Perry becomes infatuated with his glamorous new lifestyle of swimming pools, sultry actresses, and cocaine-fueled parties. He’s willing to do anything for success in Tinseltown—even if it threatens to poison his marriage and send his wife packing.
National bestselling author Dan Wakefield, who is no stranger to Hollywood—he created the NBC series James at 15 in 1977—fills Perry’s vividly illustrated escapades with insider nods and quirky asides that make for a gripping read. With Wakefield’s signature blend of wit and compassion, Selling Out balances laugh-out-loud humor with great emotional depth.
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By Dan Wakefield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Dan Wakefield
All rights reserved.
He was flying.
He was thirty-five thousand feet above America, in the clouds, in first class, with the woman he loved, on his way to make more money than he'd ever dreamed of making, for doing something he had only dreamed of doing. The whole thing was so good that it seemed, if anything, too good. The idea of such abundant fortune stirred in Perry Moss a certain apprehension as well as elation, a nervous impulse to glance back over his shoulder and make sure nothing dangerous was bearing down on him.
Perry pressed his seat button back to upright, pulled off the earphones that were transmitting soothing tones from the Oldies but Goodies channel, tapped the shoulder of the lovely woman beside him, and cleared his throat in an official-sounding prelude to speech.
"Remember now. This whole thing's only a fantasy. You know? An adventure. We'll enjoy it, get the most out of it, but we won't be taken in by it. OK?"
Perry realized he was pointing a finger at her as he spoke, as if she were his student instead of his wife. His voice was pitched too loud, in the tone for giving a lecture to a hall full of raw freshmen. He suspected the audience he was trying so hard to educate was really himself.
"I know," she nodded solemnly, "we've got to keep our wits about us."
Then her sudden smile broke out, and she whispered with delicious conspiracy.
"But don't you love it?"
"Love you," he murmured happily.
He nuzzled a kiss on her neck and she tenderly stroked his head, then drew away to look at him. Her bright face glowed with a mischievous grin.
"You know what I love most about it?" she asked.
Perry pretended to muse on this, then snapped his fingers.
"You can take up surfing? I bet that's it. You've always wanted to hang ten."
She poked a finger in his side.
"What I love most," she went on, "is that nobody else can picture it. Us. In Hollywood!"
Perry couldn't help smiling as he recalled the dour, disapproving faces of most of his colleagues on the faculty, and even some of his favorite students, when they heard he was going out to Hollywood to write a script for some kind of television program — not even for PBS, but a regular commercial network!
There were dire mutterings about "tinseltown," "wasteland," "glitter," and even "selling out," as if any kind of involvement with mass entertainment — especially TV — was a betrayal of intellectual principle, a kind of consorting with the cultural enemy. Haviland College, in southern Vermont, was neither as prestigious nor as pompous as Harvard, but it did take pride in its reputation as an outlying adjunct of the Ivy League, and harbored the ingrained academic distrust of the "popular" in arts and entertainment.
His colleagues' knee-jerk reaction of shocked sensibility was followed by a wave of what Perry considered their condescending concern for his own welfare. They harrumphed and glowered and trotted out the tired old cliches about what Hollywood "did" to people (as if the place itself were some malevolent force, a form of infectious disease), capped by the old chestnut about poor Scott Fitzgerald meeting his early demise because of "Hollywood."
Jane of course came up with the perfect response for faculty cocktail parties.
"We're not going Hollywood," she explained sweetly. "We're just going to Hollywood."
Besides, they were only going for a month. The January semester break. It would be like a paid vacation with a lottery-sized bonus thrown in.
Perry pressed his seat back again to a reclining position and stoked up his pipe. He secretly enjoyed the hullabaloo this trip was causing within his little community. It was not just the professional aspect of it that had all the tongues wagging, it was also the personal surprise, the seeming contradiction of "us in Hollywood."
The juxtaposition of images clashed in an almost comic way, like Supreme Court justices wearing funny hats, or the Pittsburgh Steelers performing Swan Lake. Perry and Jane Moss were regarded as the temperamental opposites of tinsel.
They were tweed. They were corduroy and cotton, with red flannel nightshirts in winter. They grew their own vegetables, made their own hearty stews. They even, literally, paddled their own canoe. Perry confided in Jane that seeing reruns of "Centennial" on television had rekindled his boyhood dream of playing intrepid explorer in his own canoe, and damned if she didn't insist they buy one. They not only made overnight camping trips down the nearby Musquam River, but sometimes "went on Jane's trip" by dressing up for Victorian picnics. Jane would loll in the bow of the canoe in a long dress and trail a parasol in the water while Perry, with hair slicked back and parted in the middle, happily did the paddling. He had never before known a woman with whom he not only shared but enacted personal fantasies, and the resulting trust and intimacy enriched their love and their lovemaking. Slowly lifting that long skirt as she lay on the blanket near the picnic hamper was the start of a waking dream he would never forget ...
A gentle nudge from Jane roused Perry from his happy reverie, calling attention to the lavish cart of desserts the flight attendant had wheeled conveniently to his side. There were different flavors of ice cream, exotic sauces, and fruit and nut toppings to choose from, any combination of which the passenger could pick for his own personally selected sundae. It was a kind of do-it-yourself dessert, except the flight attendant did it for you.
Talk about first class!
Perry was already full, and he had sworn off rich desserts for the New Year, but this was a special circumstance. His virgin first-class flight, at someone else's expense, on a trip that might make the whole course of his life more luxurious. What the hell. He rapped out the ashes from his pipe and turned his full attention to the array of luscious possibilities.
Before he finished eating his fantasy sundae Perry wished he had held out for fruit and cheese, or at least something sweet but simple, like vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. The exotic mixture he had chosen had not upset his stomach, but rather his mind — or was it his conscience? Right in the midst of a glorious taste of the mocha royale ice cream topped with crushed pecans and Kahlúa sauce, he thought of the dean. The one person who had really put a damper on this whole adventure.
Dean Gordon Rackley was one of those smug academic types whose literary admiration was reserved for the kind of writer who could get the most footnotes on the head of a pin. Years ago, when Perry first started selling his short stories to magazines like Playboy and Redbook as well as Ploughshares and Partisan Review, it was Rackley alone among the faculty who made the obligatory snide remark about getting slick on us. Later, when some of those same stories were selected for publication in prestigious collections like The Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize stories, Perry with relish presented the dean with copies, adorned with excruciatingly polite inscriptions.
Perry had braced himself when he saw the dean bearing down on him at one of those faculty sherries just after the news of Hollywood broke. Instead of the expected needle in the ribs, however, Rackley gave him an unaccustomed clasp on the shoulder.
"What a delightful opportunity for you!" the dean exclaimed with robust good cheer.
"Why, thank you," Perry said, relaxing under the warm assurance of Rackley's smile and comradely grip. He gave the dean a bashful grin.
"Evidently, the idea of me in Hollywood boggles most people's minds around here," Perry confided to his unexpected new ally.
"Odd," mused the dean, "it doesn't surprise me in the least."
Perry felt himself tense again.
"Oh?" he asked cautiously.
"Mmmm," the dean purred. "I always thought you had a streak of it in you."
"'A streak?' Of what?"
A slight smile played at the dean's lips.
"Of Hollywood," he said, then took a delicate sip of his sherry, savoring.
Perry could feel his cheeks burning, remembering the dean's little dig. It was like an accusation, a recognition of hidden corruption. He spooned up the last of the sundae, wondering if his choice of mocha royale with Kahlúa sauce was an early warning sign of creeping decadence.
For God sake, sit back and enjoy, he told himself.
He licked the last of the sauce from his spoon just as a festive tinkling sound heralded the return of the flight attendant, pushing a cart that was crowded with brandy and liqueur bottles.
"Care for an after-dinner drink?" she asked with a smile.
Perry automatically turned to Jane, not precisely for permission or even approval but more for guidance, advice as to what would be not necessarily the most virtuous but ultimately the most satisfying choice, in this as in all things. They huddled, whispering. Perry confessed he was happily flying on champagne and wine as well as on the plane itself, and was so enjoying the vacationlike high that he hated to bring himself down from it with coffee, yet feared that the dark alcoholic potions being proffered might lead to heaviness and headache. Jane understood, agreed, and as usual came up with what seemed to Perry the perfect answer. He smiled, nodded, and looked up at the waiting attendant.
"Instead of any of that, may we just have some more champagne?" he asked.
"Of course!" the attendant assured him, adding a wink, as if giving her personal approval to the plan, and in a few moments was back with fresh, fluted glasses and a frosty new bottle whose cork she popped on the spot.
When Perry and Jane touched their glasses in a toast, they didn't even speak, but just exchanged a nod, a sign of their mutual appreciation and understanding. They were on a wavelength that Perry had never imagined possible, a shared communication that was not only apparent to others, but even seemed unsettling to those whose own marriages were neither so harmonious nor close.
"You seem to have a symbiotic relationship," the elegant Professor Evelyn Parkhurst, chairman of anthropology, told them once, making it sound like a textbook neurosis rather than the actual meaning of mutual dependence they were both proud to acknowledge.
"We clicked right away," was how Jane explained it.
In spite of the circumstance, Perry always added in his mind, experiencing a nervous tremor and an automatic outbreak of perspiration that recurred whenever he was reminded of their first, near-disastrous meeting. Jane had come up to Vermont to take his photograph for the Boston Globe five years before, to accompany a Living page article on Perry prompted by publication of his latest book of stories. He had forgotten the appointment, and gone to the door a little after ten in the morning unshaven, shaking still from a monumental hangover, wearing only undershorts and a soiled button-down shirt he had grabbed from a pile of dirty clothes in his closet when he couldn't find his bathrobe.
"Oh God," he said when he saw Jane, "I had no idea —"
"Didn't we agree on ten o'clock?" she asked.
He remembered the appointment to have his picture taken then, but what he could not have known beforehand was that the very sight of the photographer would cut through the fog of his hangover, of the fuzzy condition not only of his head at the moment but of the whole frayed feeling of his life at that time. There was a glow about this woman who had suddenly materialized at his doorway, an aura of brightness and energy. She was tall and big-boned (not at all his type), and her high cheeks were flushed a ruddy pink, without makeup, her shock of thick blond shoulder-length hair pulled casually to a pony tail and tied with a piece of bright green yarn. He felt a deep and immediate impulse to throw his arms around her, but managed to restrain himself.
"Come in — I'm sorry," he said, motioning toward the living room of his bachelor apartment, which he realized with a wince of embarrassment looked like the scene of a rock group's reunion. His record albums from the sixties — the last ones he had bought — were spilled all around the stereo cabinet out of their jackets, lying on the dusty floor, which was bare except for splayed piles of magazines and newspapers, an empty bottle of Scotch and a couple of decomposing Chicken McNuggets from last night's "dinner." Perry reached down and grabbed an old sock from the detritus, then added to it by brushing off the remains of cheese and crackers from a corner of the couch so Jane could sit down while he went to shower and shave.
"Make yourself at home," he said plaintively, trying to be unobtrusive as he kicked a large black frilly bra beneath the couch, then realized the subterfuge was senseless since the garment's owner was still in his bed. He plucked the incriminating item from the floor and bunched it behind him as he backed out of the room, wondering if there was any way he could slip his overnight guest out the bedroom window; but he knew in his heart that was hopeless, especially since Lana Molloy, the hair stylist who had driven up from Brattleboro to party with him, had brought along her faithful dog, who would have to be dispensed with at the same time.
When Lana came wobbling out of the bedroom a little later in her violet spandex pants and high heels, carrying her brace of mambo drums and followed by her dog, Jane stood up and said uneasily, "Maybe I've come at a bad time."
"Oh no!" Perry exclaimed in true panic, adding like a plea from someone drowning, "Stay!"
"As for us, we're on the road," said Lana with a wink, and Perry, pulling himself together as best he could, smiled gamely and said, "Jane, I'd like you to meet Lana Molloy — and Langley Wallingford."
Perry held his breath as he watched Jane's eyes widen at the introduction and her mouth start to open in disbelief (or was it disgust?), but then to his surprise and delight she bent down and took the dog's paw as she broke out laughing.
"Why, Langley," she said, "I know you — you're Phoebe's husband on 'All My Children'!"
"Oh, you're a fan!" Lana exclaimed happily. "Do you remember back when Phoebe was married to Dr. Charles Tyler?"
"I never thought he'd leave her for Mona Kane, did you?"
As Jane and Lana, like long-lost sisters, began rehashing events on the soap, Perry snuck back to the bathroom and popped another four aspirin.
He tried to look self-assured and authorially wise when a half hour later he leaned dizzily against a pine tree as Jane focused her Nikon on him.
"Lana's not one of my students," he explained, for he wanted to make clear that he didn't stoop to such unfair exploitation. As soon as he said it he realized what a pathetic claim it was to any pretense of nobility.
"That's none of my concern," Jane said, and Perry felt even worse. She told him "Smile," and the effort to do so in order to please her, combined with the nausea he still felt from the night before, as well as the sickening sense that his very existence was a sham, led to the quick, unexpected moment he later claimed was the worst one of his adult life to that point: he vomited on his shoes.
Jane stayed and nursed him, prevailing against his weak avowals of unworthiness that she was simply an intrepid photographer who would go to any lengths to get her assignment. By midafternoon she was teaching him how to make a healthy stew and they were exchanging not only their views about literature and photography but also their personal histories. By the time they sat down to eat and lit the candles she had bought at the superette, Perry reached across the table to take her hand — the first time he had touched her — and said he wanted her to move up there and marry him.
"We'll see," she said, and he knew from her eyes this dream would come true and that along with his writing it was the most important one of his life.
The whole thing seemed so natural and easy that Perry's friends at first were skeptical (especially in light of his track record) and then, as they saw the relationship working, they settled into a mixed attitude of acceptance — relieved and at the same time a little bit envious. That was how good it was.
Excerpted from Selling Out by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 1985 Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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