Review: A Film By Spencer Ludwig
Novelist (and former JC columnist) David Flusfeder’s latest offers a witty, autobiographical take on the road movie
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Flusfeder: detached view of journey with character based on his father
By David Flusfeder
Fourth Estate, £11.99
Spencer Ludwig is a middle-aged, balding director of films that garner praise from the critics though little commercial interest. He lives in London, doting on his enthusiastic if demanding daughter and playing a great deal of internet poker. His father, Jimmy, lives in New York with Spencer's stepmother, where he watches boxing on TV and conducts a campaign of attritional brooding against his wife.
Jimmy has aphasia - impaired linguistic ability. He is a permanent invalid with "problems with his lungs, his blood pressure, the nerve endings of his hands and feet… constant pain from stenosis of the spine…. [an] inability to empty his bowels". He wheezes about, dragging his breathing apparatus after him.
When Spencer flies to America - partly out of filial duty, partly to escape the importunings of his producer to take on more lucrative work - he is presented with an opportunity to find some equanimity in his relationship with his father, which has thus far been dominated by Jimmy's gruffness, contempt for his son's profession and obsession with material success.
The book is ruefully honest about families and failure
The pair set off for Atlantic City - against all medical advice and the hysterical admonitions of Jimmy's wife - where, surprise, surprise, they learn much about themselves and each other. This is, of course, conventional road-movie territory. David Flusfeder's conceit is that, though Spencer had considered making a film about his father, he had left his camera at home after his last girlfriend had raged at him that "because you're frightened of real life, you need to put something between you and real life".
Each encounter with a movie cliché - being pulled over by the cops, tarts with hearts, an improbable run of luck on the poker table - is wittily unpicked by Flusfeder, who produces outcomes that are plausibly deflationary but never unsatisfactory.
A Film by Spencer Ludwig is substantially autobiographical. As Flusfeder has acknowledged, Jimmy is based on his father: both survived wartime Warsaw, the Gulag and Monte Cassino; both married twice, went to America and made their fortune. Though some emotions still run deep - Spencer's stepmother's name is never mentioned in the book - the ironic detachment of Flusfeder's prose prevents self-indulgence creeping in. He shows that, however disappointed we may be, we can't stop imagining fabulous futures and probing stories from our past in order to understand the present.
His book is humorous, wise and ruefully honest about families and failure. And it would make a pretty good film.
Jonathan Beckman is the assistant editor of Literary Review