Shh! It’s A Secret - A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide
Dan Kimmel, author of several non-fiction books about film and television, presents his first novel: A sci-fi spoof of Hollywood. The choice of genre is a natural, since Hollywood is almost like a planet apart, with its own rituals, culture, ecosystem, and, some might argue, its own version of sentient life (for move stars, producers, screenwriters, and such ilk are sure more than terrestrial?).
Dan and I belong to the same film critics’ group, which initially caused me some concern when Dan offered his first novel, "Shh! It’s A Secret!" for my review. Reviewing a friend’s work is always a bit of a dodgy proposition; after all, there lurks the possibility that one might not like it, and while honest intellectual disagreement or divergence in taste is fine in theory, the emotional calculus of writing a bad review on something into which a friend has poured heart, soul, and years of labor is no light thing.
It’s with glee that I find I can report that Dan Kimmel’s first novel is as witty, smart, and funny as his non-fiction books. In large part, this stems from Kimmel’s unrestrained sense of fun, as he takes aim at Tinseltown and scores one direct hit after another. Kimmel’s love of science fiction and expertise in the genre also comes to the fore (he was nominated last year for a Hugo Award for his collection of essays on science fiction films, a tome engagingly titled "Jar Jar Binks Must Die!"), but above all else this is a book about friendship and family.
"Shh!" centers on Jake Berman, a studio publicist who, with the rest of the world, was stunned and anxious when an alien starship set down in the Catskills. Fortunately, the aliens haven’t come to wreak havoc; rather, having watched our television signals for years, they are intrigued enough to pay us a visit. They call themselves the Brogardi, and they turn out to be both humanoid (albeit blue-skinned) and friendly. They also have plenty of cultural and scientific material to swap with us Earthens (as they like to call us).
It’s the biggest event in all of human history, but modern life is nowhere so busy and so fast-forward as in Hollywood, so it isn’t long before Berman, his studio executive boss, and everyone else in "the industry" has gone right back to work. Indeed, it isn’t long before the Brogardi become Berman’s work: The son of the alien ambassador, a charming fellow named Abe, turns out to be an aspiring movie star, and Berman’s studio is all too happy to usher him into his first role. The project -- an interstellar update of "The Jazz Singer" -- is hush-hush, a surefire hit kept under the tightest of wraps to avoid rush-job competition from other studios. But the shroud of secrecy imposes higher-than-usual burdens on Jake, including taking Abe into his own home to help the young Brogardi acclimate to the movie-making biz.
Odd-couple antics are inevitable, but Kimmel avoids the obvious pitfalls and lays his plot more carefully than is typical for the first contact / comedy genre. The culture clashes take on a more mature cast when Abe not only struggles with the occasional slang word or odd custom; indeed, there are specters of prejudice abroad (what must white supremacists make of a race of blue people?) and a slightly worrying propensity on Abe’s part for imbibing in alcoholic elixirs of all sorts. (In one recurrent motif, Abe is working his way through the Old Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide, from the pages of which he extracts obscure concoctions to spring on unwary, and often delighted, mixologists.)
Kimmel writes with glowing detail of Berman’s home life, into which Abe is immediately ensconced. It’s with his tongue in cheek that the author presents us with a young child named Susan, Berman’s daughter, who is not only not terrified of Abe, but also instantly adopts him as her best friend. The young, after all, are forever the vanguard of a better, and less biased, tomorrow. This might seem a minor plot device, but actually the portrait of Berman’s family lies close to the heart of the novel, and the title comes from the catch phrase that Abe and Susan share in order to keep the movie’s production on the Q.T.
All well and good... but is the novel funny?
Oh, yes. Kimmel has a natural comic talent that comes through at every turn: Plotting, prose style, characters, and even the chapter names, which are borrowed from the titles of classic films. ("The Day the Earth Stood Still"; "Brother From Another Planet"; "Teenagers from Outer Space.") Kimmel even comes up with a new twist on the old joke about foods that taste like chicken -- to say more would be to spoil a major development. There’s more than a little shtick and plenty of Borscht Belt comic flourish, not the least of which has to do with the Catskills thundering back to full-bore tourism as a result of the Brogardi having landed there. (Earth’s first spaceport is quickly built right nearby.)
Tuck into this book and you’ll be surprised at how many cultural strands Kimmel has woven together. The laughs we can almost take for granted: Kimmel is a funny guy. What’s most satisfying about this novel is that it’s not just a bunch of gags strung together or a score-counting parody with en eye on the lowest common (or lowest possible) denominator; rather, it’s a novel first and foremost, and the way it taps into a wellspring of intelligent, family-friendly humor gives it that much more loft and speed.