The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin
Grove Press 2006 240 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
“Griffin Mill was broke, he was down to his last six million dollars.” Thus begins our return visit to the wonder world of Mr. Mill, a Hollywood insider, a philanthropist, a family man, and a murderer. While The Return of the Player offers many of the delights of Michael Tolkin’s first novel, The Player, the author seems to have suffered from an exquisitely Hollywood problem: he can’t figure out how to end his story.
When we last left Griffin, he had successfully covered up his murder of the screenwriter he thought had been threatening him, and was happily ensconced with June Mercator, the screenwriter’s girlfriend. As our story opens, Mill has divorced June, with whom he had two children, and married Lisa, who he was sleeping with while married to June. They have a child, Willa, who was “darling but slow and—well, actually not so darling.” Willa will play an important role in one of the climatic scenes later in the book.
Griffin, fifty-two, with twenty-five years in the movie business, finds himself at an emotional and professional crossroads. He “wasn’t afraid that the world was coming to an end; no, he was in a panic because he knew the world was already ten years dead and the future was just necrosis.” Under the thumb of Stella Baal, President of Production at his studio, Mill succumbs to the blandishments of Philip Ginsberg, “the third- or fourth-smartest guy in town.” He quits the studio and goes to work for Ginsberg, an imperious Zen-like presence who gives Mill bizarre assignments seemingly unrelated to everyone else’s focus: making the most money in the shortest amount of time before their world comes to an end.
His first wife, June, “wastes time and makes herself miserable chasing men who are chronosocio appropriate.” Willa is showing signs of psychological disturbance and, perhaps most fearfully, his son Ethan is having trouble being admitted to the appropriate private school.
Torn between responsibilities to his two families, Griffin can’t seem to make sense of his life, one he understands in Hollywood narrative terms. “Why, Griffin asked himself, can’t I make my life into the Journey of the Hero? Why can’t I find my comic spirit guides and a shape-shifter or two to help me integrate my light and dark shadows?”
As in The Player, Mill makes a split-second decision that costs someone his life, and subsequent events flow from that fateful decision. Simultaneously, however, his wife, Lisa, has become involved with the police, having lost self-control at “Nordstrom’s in The Grove, which everyone agreed was the most pleasant mall in the world.”
Will his murder be uncovered? Will he figure out what Ginsburg is asking of him professionally? Will he return to June, whom he now realizes he has always loved? Will Ethan be admitted to private school? Tolkin’s strength in the two Player novels is his mastery of point of view: Griffin’s deranged self-absorption, his obsession with money, his total amorality are played straight. To himself, Griffin Mill is a man simply trying to do the right thing for himself and his family. The result is a deeply cynical, admirably intelligent, often hilarious dark comedy that sustains its tone until its resolution.
That ending, however, rings false, and appears tacked onto a story whose proper ending is still out there somewhere. The arrival of a former president, a move to the East coast, and Griffin’s new ambitions: none of these final events seem to square with what has gone before. Still, Tolkin’s impressive intelligence and comic gifts make this story worthy of recommendation.