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Fleen Book Corner: Child Star

Here’s the thing about Child Star; I have no idea how much of a spoiler warning I should put on this thing. On the one hand, it’s a work of fiction and there’s plot points that you might not see coming that could be discussed here. On the other hand, I suspect that spoiler susceptibility is largely a function of age.

Those of us in the 40-50 range and up might well on casual reading think that this is another of Box Brown’s nonfiction works¹, because it recalls so many things that actually happened, the memory of them can blur to the point that you’d convince yourself it’s real. Younger readers that didn’t live through the back 20 years of the Cold War would just think he’s come up with one hell of a twisty story.

All of which is to say, I found myself awash in a sea of note-perfect recreations of TV Guide listings and ads, of Nancy Reagan-inspired Very Special Episodes, of a story that paralleled the life of numerous real-life child stars (one in particular) so cleanly that recalling what happened 40 or more years caused me to stop multiple times to say, Wait, that’s not what happened, was it?

For those younger than me who don’t remember back to, let’s say the Montreal Olympics, this is what it was like, all of it, particularly the Reagan years. Hollywood was churning out TV, movies, and TV movies exactly as bad and uninspired as Brown’s fictional examples. The thorough exploitation of the entertainment/industrial complex by the Republican political machine was just as pervasive as shown here. The universality of a cute, sassy kid on a sitcom, one that reached all corners of society, actually was possible in a world of three broadcast networks plus a handful of rerun channels plus maybe PBS. It really did happen that a full third of the country would watch the same thing on a Tuesday night.

And for those that only know Gary Coleman from the soundtrack of Avenue Q, this book is practically a biography, with overtones of every other kid that hit big and wound up getting chewed up and spit out — which would be pretty much all of them in the past 50 years except Kurt Russell, Jodie Foster, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Peter Ostrum.

It’s an uncomfortable read, which leads to a lot of questions as to who is responsible for the machine that entices and destroys young lives; is it the agencies, the production companies, the moguls of Hollywood that are responsible for every Mary-Kate and Ashley or Britney whose childhood is twisted into something unrecognizable and what that inevitably does to them? Is is the public that demands the new, the fresh, and increasingly the scandalous to sate their appetites for the next heavily-scripted unreality family once Hiltons, Kardashians, and Gosselins no longer amuse?

Yes, and yes. Central character Owen Eugene’s parents may have failed to protect him and actively exploited him — all while declaring how much they sacrificed and thus deserved — but it was a hundred million ordinary folks that demanded they do so, and would do it to their own kids in a heartbeat³ if they could.

Because on TV and in movies, everything is perfect, the people are better, the money never stops, and the closest to human empathy you get is the mild obsessive that collects all the tchotchkes and ephemera related to their favorite. Child Star is a cautionary tale more than anything, distilled down to a form that makes it truer than any memoir; it’s more melancholy of what This Is Spinal Tap would have been if it wasn’t played for laughs. You weren’t blameless, Owen, but you deserved better.

Child Star by Box Brown is published by :01 Books, and is available wherever books are sold. The pandemic has disrupted the whole review copies pipeline, so this one was my purchase and it was worth every penny. Put it in front of any kid aspiring to stardom, and especially their parents.

Spam of the day:

Nice day! You applied and you were accepted as a remote employee. CLICK HERE, FILL IN THE FORM, I’LL GIVE YOU A JOB. They took you.

Thanks for the offer, but remote or not, I really don’t feel like working Moscow hours.

Extra Special Time-Sensitive Bonus Spam of the day:

New York Comic Con Starts Tomorrow!

Yeah, if you’re going to declare that I don’t deserve press credentials for your show, I’m going to have to ask that you take me off your friggin’ press list. It was always the biggest pile of useless of all the shows I was credentialed for, and now it’s extra pointless.

¹ His previous books being biographies of André the Giant and Andy Kaufman², an almost-oral history of Tetris, and a straight history of drug policy around cannabis.

² With an extra half-biography of Jerry Lawler thrown in for good measure.

³ We’re not even considering the pressure on each high school kid that’s decent at a sport to shoot for the pros, or the number of hangers-on, posse-mates, and less-than-immediate relatives that immediately show up for a share of the payout.

Your site has been inaccessible to me for a couple of weeks. I was worried . . . Good to see you again.

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