Let Us Now Praise Famous Californians

By Wayne CatanAugust 26, 2021

Let Us Now Praise Famous Californians

Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California by Matthew Specktor

MATTHEW SPECKTOR’S Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California presents nine portraits of Hollywood artists who made an impression on him. It’s an amalgam of biography and memoir but ends up in the category of personal essay.

Specktor writes honestly and cogently about each artist’s life as he weaves in his own foibles and experiences as an artist, father, son, and friend. Always Crashing covers a lot of ground, beginning with an explanation of the life-crash that called Specktor back to Los Angeles: his wife leaving him for a co-worker. From there, he measures the impact of F. Scott Fitzgerald on his career; writes eloquently of Eleanor and Frank Perry of Diary of a Mad Housewife; pens a psychological study of actress Tuesday Weld; and divulges Warren Zevon’s flaws.

Specktor knows the terrain. He grew up in Santa Monica, the son of a respected agent at Creative Artists Agency and a screenwriter, albeit an unsuccessful one who had issues with alcohol. The author was a voracious reader as a kid. He became a writer after reading Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, recalling a line from the 1920 novel: “They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.” Specktor eventually moved into an apartment across the street from the apartment where Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940. He looked through the living room window and reminded himself that the talented “came to LA and washed out, the way people, and writers in particular, so often do.” This melancholy cue is the setup for Always Crashing.

Specktor was also inspired by writer Thomas McGuane. “I wanted so badly to be him,” he writes. “From the depths of my screaming adolescent soul, I wanted nothing more, as I stared at the dust jacket of a book plucked from my parents’ shelves.”

But people are complicated. During the filming of his novel Ninety-two in the Shade, McGuane slept with the leading ladies, Elizabeth Ashley and Margot Kidder. The problem: McGuane was directing the movie, and was married at the time. He was also infuriated when his wife hopped in bed with 92 in the Shade co-star Warren Oates before re-marrying to Peter Fonda, who played the lead role of fishing guide Tom Skelton. At any rate, Kidder and McGuane later married. Perhaps Specktor related, at some point, to Skelton, who did not believe in working a full day. Specktor uses this sordid tale as a backdrop for his own divorce and experience raising his daughter. He also confesses that he does not enjoy screenwriting, something he was good at, but perhaps this was “just another shortcoming: a failure to take joy in opportunities other people, sensibly, would have killed for.”

Actress Tuesday Weld may be best known for turning down lead roles in Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, and True Grit, securing her the label of Hollywood’s major underachiever. But she felt more comfortable being the actress who “may be self-destructive [who thinks] the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.” Some people are just not built for the spotlight, and that was the case for a friend of Specktor’s, someone he calls “D.” They met in New York City when they were both struggling writers in their mid-20s. D had imperfections: he was shackled with bipolar disorder, and he was an alcoholic. He foreshadows later events in a letter to Specktor: “I feel like somewhere my life got infected by failure.”

The section about Warren Zevon is prickly. Specktor’s father, Fred, broke the news that he was divorcing Specktor’s mother while they were in a car listening to Zevon’s “Excitable Boy.” (Plus his upstairs neighbor, a music journalist, dated Zevon and called him a bad boyfriend.) Specktor masterfully orients the reader within the West Hollywood landscape, walking them through Zevon’s favorite breakfast place, Hugo’s, then to Book Soup, where Zevon purchased his Ross Macdonald and Carl Hiaasen novels, before crossing over to the musician’s apartment on Horn Avenue near Tower Records, the Troubadour, and a Ralphs, where Zevon bought his groceries. Alcoholism plays a role here, too: Zevon, who died in 2003 of mesothelioma, was violent when he drank and tough on the people closest to him. “He was, in short, a real prick.” It is in this section of Always Crashing that Specktor learns to forgive. He views Zevon differently, knowing that the musician suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can create rage in the sanest of men. He ponders his ex-wife’s infidelity, and he thinks about his mother’s abusiveness and alcoholism.

The only flaw in Always Crashing is that, at times, the author’s flashbacks distract the reader from the organic flow of the prose, necessitating a reread. However, Specktor accomplishes what he set out to do: to provide an intimate study of nine artists of diverse talent who had an impact on him. Specktor is a polymath, an honest one who is tough on himself throughout the book. He did not follow his father into the movie business, choosing the more difficult path of writing. Perhaps it is fear of failure that motivates Specktor, and that fear has propelled him to success.


Wayne Catan is a book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Millions, On the Seawall, The Hemingway Review, and The Brooklyn Rail.

LARB Contributor

Wayne Catan is a book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Millions, On the Seawall, The Hemingway Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. He teaches English at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.


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