Summer reading, pt. 3 – a book much more than “a hill of beans”

Hill of Beans, the newest novel by Les Epstein, for 36 years head of the Boston University Creative Writing Program and author of 11 books, including King of the Jews, San Remo Drive, and Pandaemonium,  is another of this writer’s novels about life in Hollywood, this time about the impact of World War II and the film industry’s messaging around wartime themes. 

The book straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, which is why I have put it in a category all its own. Epstein (disclaimer: he is a personal friend) uses real-life people and creates a story featuring controversial film industry mogul Jack Warner, a driving force in Hollywood for decades. The principal narrative centers on Warner’s imagined effort to manipulate the timing of the Allied invasion of North Africa so that it would coincide with his 1943 movie about refugees stranded in Morocco (read: Academy-award-winning film Casablanca. Here’s a case of art both imitating and initiating life.

Hill of Beans is laced with humor,including clever puns and often-corny Yiddish jokes, and vivid portrayals of larger-than-life characters including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, and Hollywood icons like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. The old-fashioned humor is definitely not politically correct, and some may find it offensive. The novel combines the dramas of war and international intrigue with the fantasy life of Hollywood. In real life, the screenplay of Casablanca was written by Epstein’s father, Philip, and uncle Julius. “The Epstein twins” wrote some 50 films under contract to Warner Brothers. 

In Hill of Beans, Jack Warner comes across as a force of nature in the industry but also a narcissist, buffoon, womanizer and abuser of many of the people who worked for him. He sometimes comes across as an anti-Semite, even though the real-life Jack Warner was a Jew of Polish descent. He is also an equal opportunity offender, his humor insulting everyone regardless of creed, race, national origin, and more.

From what I have read elsewhere, the characters in this fiction may be exaggerated, but they all contain seeds of truth. Les Epstein was certainly influenced by his father’s and uncle’s lives as writers.  Hill of Beans is written in the form of a screen play. The story is told in the voices several of the key characters and bounced back and forth between and among a few dates in World War II, which took a little getting used to. Beyond being a good yarn, which it surely is, it is an homage to Philip and Julius and a delicious getting even with Jack Warner. Come in out of the 100-degree heat, grab some popcorn or a gin and tonic, put your feet up, and enjoy reading Hill of Beans.

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