In His New (and first-ever) Novel, Barry Levinson Revisits that Diner in his Mind Where the Baltimore of the Past Lives On, and Never Closes
Filmmaker Barry Levinson's latest homage to fin de '50s Baltimore revolves, like a countertop cake tray, around a klatsch of young guys who congregate at a roadside diner in Northwest Baltimore. They get together for ritual all-night, all-male banter sessions, punctuated by their private slang and washed down with french fries and gravy. Inevitably, the adult world intrudes on their extended adolescence--girlfriends become wives, wives become pregnant, the nifty '50s become the turbulent '60s--and each character is confronted with his own coming-of-age issues. But though their carefree diner days are numbered, Levinson's characters learn to lean on each other, even as outside forces contrive to lead them apart.
If this sounds a lot like Diner, Levinson's 1982 directing debut, it's because Sixty-Six--Levinson's first novel, to be released this month by Random House's Broadway Books--is strikingly similar to the film that launched the careers of its Brat Pack cast, among them Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, and Mickey Rourke. Diner may have been the crowning achievement of some of its ensemble--Rourke and Guttenberg would never shine so brilliantly as they did against the restaurant's flickering neon--but it was just the start of Levinson's remarkable directorial career, as notable for its longevity as for its union of commercial and critical triumphs.
The success of Diner enabled Levinson, then a 40-year-old comedy writer, to emerge as a serious Hollywood player, both as a director-for-hire--among his hits are The Natural, Rain Man, and Good Morning Vietnam--and auteur of a series of nostalgia pieces sometimes referred to as ³I;The Baltimore Movies²: Diner, Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999). In recent years, Levinson has also achieved prominence as a producer; his production company is responsible for a formidable catalog of successful movies, among them Quiz Show, The Perfect Storm, and Analyze This, as well as the Baltimore-based TV series Homicide and HBO's Oz.
With Sixty-Six, Levinson, 61, returns to his roadside roots, both real and fictional, at an aluminum-plated diner on Reisterstown Road.
There are differences, of course. Sixty-Six is a book, not a movie. Written in the first person, Levinson's novel is more intimately autobiographical than any of his Baltimore pictures. It's also a considerably more ambitious effort than Diner, which was set in still-innocent 1959 and was content to focus on the minor feuds and foibles of a group of friends learning to grow up.
In Sixty-Six Levinson moves up his milieu to the eve of the Mobtown race riots, steering his suburbanites headlong into a culture clash with all the usual suspects: drugs, sex, and Vietnam. Sixty-Six aims for more than the end of youthful innocence; it wants to capture a country's naiveté, a society veered badly off track, and a city that has yet to find its way back.
"It's the final chapter. It's the end of the diner guys," says Levinson, by phone from his Connecticut home. "They were a generation. When you're part of a generation, you're it, you know? You have the pinkie ring and the sharp suit and the tie and the polished shoes, and you've made it. And then all of a sudden there's another generation, and you're a little bit older and a little bit out of step. And you're like, who am I? Am I me, or am I my father? These are the images I had in my head and thought, well, this is kind of interesting, I haven't dealt with this yet. Maybe I can take the diner guy, who's kind of cool, and all of a sudden he literally runs into something that seems to come overnight."
Writing a novel was never part of Levinson's plans. "It never even entered my mind," he says. "A book was never on my list of things do."
Then again, neither were movies. When Barry Levinson graduated Forest Park High School in 1960--near the bottom of his class--he was a slacker before his time.
When ditching class at Mount Vernon Law School in the early '60s, Levinson killed time in the library across the street. He discovered a shelf of books on broadcasting and promptly decided to become a radio disc jockey. He quit law school and returned to Baltimore Junior College (he had dropped out a few years earlier), where he did well enough to transfer to American University in Washington, which had a strong program in broadcast journalism. It wasn't until 1963, while a trainee at WTOP-TV in D.C., that the future Academy Award winner encountered his vocation.
This accidental courtship with film is fictionalized in Sixty-Six. The book's narrator, Bobby Shine, drops out of law school to take an internship at a local TV station, where a series of comical mishaps earn him a quick demotion to hand-puppet operator on a popular children's show. (The "Ranger Hal" show was a morning staple on WTOP, and Levinson's arm really did inhabit the bodies of Oswald the Rabbit and Marvin the Monkey.) To make his job more bearable, Bobby dreams up skits for Ranger Hal, discovering in himself a talent for comedy. (Levinson's first show-biz jobs were writing sketches for television comedians, among them Tim Conway, Rich Little, and Carol Burnett.) In his free time, Bobby hangs out in the station's film library, getting an education in movies and teaching himself to cut old film into promos for network broadcasts. Eventually, the protagonist's rising star at the station flares into tensions with his new fiancée, who feels increasingly neglected.
Meanwhile, the other diner guys are dealing with their own crises. Neil's number comes up in the war draft, Ben turns to drugs to cope with his souring marriage, and Turko and Eggy--a sex-starved version of Abbott and Costello--are dismayed to discover that pinky rings and Brylcreem no longer impress the girls, and definitely not the bra-less hippie chicks suddenly bouncing around Mount Vernon.
Levinson's storytelling chops are evident in the seamless interweaving of the many subplots into one coherent narrative. Despite some uneven writing and a weakness for cliché (e.g., "They were simpler days--nothing could be more exciting for a kid than the smell of fresh roasted peanuts filling the air on a cold winter day . . . "), Sixty-Six is a quick read, tightly scripted, and Levinson's gift for dialogue is on display throughout.
The novel, in fact, reads very much like a quintessential Barry Levinson movie, though the resemblance may actually present a problem for readers.
For one thing, it's nearly impossible to read it without imagining the faces and places of Diner. Apart from the narrator, many of the characters and situations in Sixty-Six feel lifted straight from the film. The charismatic draftee, Neil, who refuses to take sides in the Vietnam conflict, is a ringer for the punch-drunk dropout portrayed by Kevin Bacon; Ben, the high school hunk past his prime, invariably conjures up the unforgettable image of Mickey Rourke in an oily pompadour; and the bickering duo of Turko and Eggy are mirror images of Diner's Modell (Paul Reiser) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg).
And since Diner is a nearly flawless film, the experience of reading the novel can at times be like watching a dramatization of your favorite book: You feel betrayed that the director took liberties with the text.
So why is Levinson retreading familiar ground? Why write a novel at all?
For a writer whose characters have a tendency to almost obsessive introspection, Levinson is not given to dissection of his own work process. He claims, in fact, to be mystified by it. "I don't know what happened," he says, "I just started writing a novel. And then I thought, what the hell am I doing, you know? And I wrote about 60 pages, and I spoke to a friend of mine, and I said, 'Hey, do you have an editor friend that I can just send it to, to see if it has any value at all?'" (The "editor friend" turned out to be Peter Gethers, a veteran executive at Random House. When you've been nominated for three Best Original Screenplay Oscars, your manuscript doesn't stew in the slush pile.)
Once a publisher expressed interest, Levinson, who's known for scripting complete films in three weeks, churned out a first draft in about two months. He says he didn't write with any preconceived notion of where the story was going. "I don't work from an outline. My mind doesn't work that way. It would take me longer to write an outline than it would to write a book."
Levinson adds that he found the challenge of switching forms--from screenwriting to prose fiction--more liberating than daunting. "In a screenplay you have to do everything entirely through dialogue," he says. "A book offers you so much more flexibility. You can get involved in a scene, slide in and out of time, have a character be introspective, which kicks off a different thought, which leads you somewhere else, which ultimately brings you back to your original scene. I like that freedom."
Despite the discursive temptations of narrative fiction, Levinson's prose is marked by cinematic brevity and visual set pieces. "Yeah," he says, laughing sheepishly. "I guess I'm part of that generation where I need things sped up a little bit."
Writers sometimes bristle when questioned about the closeness of their characters and themselves. Levinson doesn't mind the question--"It comes with the territory, I guess"--though he denies having a confessional impulse. "I really don't think of me when I'm writing the narrator. I think of the character. Too many things in [the book] never really happened," he says. "Anyway, I think there's this collective memory we get after a while, where you don't even know if something happened to you or to your friends."
Like Liberty Heights, Sixty-Six confronts social issues more directly than did Levinson's early films, though he disavows any conscious agenda. "[The social issues] are a by-product rather than a conscious thing," he says. "In the end it's the story that embraces you and that you embrace. The story takes you where it will, and it'll gather up those issues along the way. I think I've been a lot more instinctive than deliberate."
Levinson's decision to return to the world of Diner may have been no more determined than was his meandering career path, but there are clues in his work that suggest that the act of remembering, and re-remembering, might actually be his raison d'writing.
Sixty-Six opens with a quotation of the narrator's grandfather: "If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better." This is the same line that closes Avalon, Levinson's third Baltimore movie, and it also appears in the most recent Baltimore film, Liberty Heights.
The recurrence of this phrase, repeated like a mantra across a body of work that spans now more than two decades, underscores a fascination with memory that is central to Levinson's work. While all of the Baltimore stories are efforts to remember a city that no longer exists, this preoccupation receives its most focused examination in Sixty-Six. Here, the consequences of not "remembering better" result in tragedy: the death of one of the diner guys and the near-death of the city.
Levinson can be vague to the point of evasiveness when talking about his writing, but he gets fired up when discussing the politics of memory. "So much of our lives slip away, you know? We walked across this earth and there were these footprints, but most of these footprints are gone. Where did they go? If we understood that a little better, I think we'd have a better sense of ourselves. You know?"
For Levinson, the obligation to "remember better" isn't merely the old cautionary tale of avoiding historical mistakes. When his characters say, "I should have remembered better," what they're really saying is, "I should have paid better attention to the present."
"I think the most disastrous and frightening aspect of the human condition is our inability to correctly perceive each other," Levinson says. "We perceive things incorrectly and we build a history upon those misconceptions, and it leads to disastrous consequences."
What more appropriate environment, then, to confront the consequences of miscommunication than against the ironic backdrop of Levinson's fabled diner sessions, where communication itself is a near-religious activity? "When something happened, good or bad, it didn't become real to any of us until it was told, and then rehashed over and over in the Diner," recounts Bobby Shine, one of Sixty-Six's new diner guys. In the novel, the two conflicts that have been percolating throughout the book--the Vietnam War and rising racial tensions in the city--are ultimately ignited by trivial misunderstandings between characters who should have been remembering better.
Like a sequel, Sixty-Six necessarily lacks some of the freshness of Diner, but it also raises Levinson's work to a new level of seriousness and sensitivity, and wisely avoids taking sides in the generation wars.
In the end, what comes through as clearly in the book as in any of his movies is Levinson's palpable affection for his hometown. "I obviously love the city. I have a real pride in the fact that I come from Baltimore. It's had its troubles. It has its troubles, but that's where I grew up and that's my place," he says, adding, "During football season, I check the paper every Monday to make sure the Colts lost."
One of the advantages of setting his stories in Baltimore, Levinson says, is an excuse to spend time in the city. So will Sixty-Six be the blueprint for the sixth Baltimore movie? "I would like to turn it into a feature at some point or time," says Levinson, who's currently directing the DreamWorks movie Envy, starring Ben Stiller and Jack Black, scheduled for an April 2004 release. If Sixty-Six gets the green light, it'll be interesting to see which actors Levinson picks for Diner Redux.
Mickey Rourke and Steve Guttenberg are available.