November 10, 2021

Article at Canadian Jewish News

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Lost in the woods: An excerpt from the novel ‘The Lost Expert’ by Hal Niedzviecki

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Twenty-four-year-old sometimes waiter Chris. Having stumbled onto the set of the movie The Lost Expert and been promptly mistaken for the lead in the film, movie star Thomson Holmes, he now finds himself in North Ontario impersonating a man he’s never met…

and

Famous, now elderly director Bryant Reed, who has reluctantly agreed to cast the action star Holmes in exchange for studio funding for what he hopes will be his last great comeback. So far, he’s been pleasantly surprised…

Chris dragged his feet, kicked up shallow puddles of pine needles. They were moving slowly but surely toward a spot in the deep woods only Reed could identify. Chris didn’t mind the hike, though of course he and Reed were the only ones without gear; the ten ragged and hungover crew were hampered by tripods, lights, batteries, booms. Chris could hear them breathing heavily from their beer bellies, stumbling and cursing as sharp boughs slapped faces their hands were too full to protect. It was a nice change, not having to do the grunt work. They were, he was sure, not enjoying this outing nearly as much as he was. Reed paused to consult his topographical map. Chris took the opportunity to suck in an extra-large gulp of the fresh air. Reed had been right. A cold front had come in. The cold made deep breaths almost painful, like those polar bear swims, Chris thought, Speedo-clad urban warriors running into winter Great Lakes.

Chris picked up his pace as Reed made a sudden turn and disappeared into a thicket. Krunk, Laurie, Reed. He’d always been a follower. Was it so bad? To be pulled in the wake of someone else’s obsession? That’s what he was doing now, wasn’t he? Following a man who wasn’t even there. Reed popped back into view. He had stopped in front of a rocky outcropping that all but blanked out the clear blue sky somewhere way above.

“Up there,” Reed half-gasped, the air catching in his throat and wheezing out.

“Up there?”

Reed had replaced his Penguins ball cap with a battered lime green toque sporting an orange and white pompom. He was wearing a lined corduroy jacket, his usual dirty jeans, and a pair of expensive hiking boots that gave him the air of an eccentric.

“Goddamn cigars,” Reed barked. Then he laughed, which turned into a cough that continued until he managed to expectorate a large blob of yellow phlegm onto a lichen-covered boulder that Chris had just been about to take a seat on.

By now the rest of the crew had struggled over. They heaved down their equipment, drained bottles of water, unzipped ski jackets, and gazed warily at the cliff that blocked their path.

“Oh yeah, we’re going up,” Reed yelled gleefully at them. “That’s the shot we want! Panoramic vistas, people! Vistas!”

The crew groaned. “That’s what helicopters are for, asshole,” one of them muttered.

To which Reed replied without taking his eyes off the cliff, “No copters. I’m a nervous flier,” which generated chuckles. Everyone knew Reed was a notorious flier, famous for backing out of flights minutes before takeoff, his sudden premonitions of doom sabotaging meticulously planned agendas and schedules.

“Take five,” Reed yelled, “then we’re going up.” He pushed past Chris and hefted himself onto the lichen rock seat, a manoeuvre Chris watched with a straight face he attributed to his recent crash course in method acting.

“You know,” Reed said, oblivious, his low grumble-whisper beckoning Chris closer. “Most of my family died in a forest like this.”

“They did?” Chris didn’t get it. Reed had told him several times about his two ex-wives, both of whom he claimed to still love madly, and three estranged children, no mention of ongoing love, but as far as he could remember they were all fine; even his parents were alive and kicking, living out their nineties in some middle American suburb somewhere.

“My grandparents’ brothers and sisters, their children, dogs, cats, the town goat. All of ’em, dragged out into the cold Lithuanian woods and shot dead.” Reed gestured to the bowl of the forest floor where his crew had taken up various positions of repose, as if this had been the exact spot where it happened.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe not the goat.”

“Why?” Chris said, only somewhat less confused than before.

“Why not the goat?”

“Why were they killed?”

“What’s the difference,” Reed asked sardonically, “between a pizza and a Jew?”

“Huh?”

“The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven.”

“That’s … that’s not funny, man.”

“Yeah, well, neither was Schindler’s List, ya know? Or that other one with that mincing Italian.”

Life Is Beautiful,” Chris said dutifully, finally understanding.

“Yeah,” Reed said.

A gust of wind pushed through, rattling the trees.

“This is my Holocaust movie,” Reed announced.

“This is a Holocaust movie?”

“Don’t tell New Line,” he mock-whispered. “They think it’s an action flick.” Reed swiped at his sweaty brow with the heavy fabric of his jacket. “Anyway, when all is said and done, this one is for the Razakovskys of Lithuania, aka the Reeds of Pittsburgh, god only knows how we ended up there.” Reed looked skyward. “Of course,” he went on, “it won’t matter to my mother. As far as she’s concerned, it’s all over, baby blue.”

“What is?”

“The line,” Reed said jovially. “The Raza-Reeds. Barring extremely unlikely unforeseen circumstances, especially since the vasectomy, the line dies with me.”

“But don’t you have—?”

“The kids don’t count, I’m sorry to say. Beth was Jewish and we had Bobby, but he’s a boy, and he’s gay, so that’s no good. Then I married Zara the Ethiopian supermodel princess, but she was the wrong kind of Ethiopian, no airlift to the holy land for her; we had us a couple of girls, but, well, as far as my mother is concerned, black Princess Zara couldn’t make Jews no matter what, so that’s it,” Reed announced glumly.

In the sky above, a lone plane propelled past, rumbling low over the trees as if pulled down by the lakes it was designed to land on.

“Ugh,” Reed said. “I hate flying in those. Don’t you hate those?”

“Dunno,” Chris said breezily. “Haven’t tried it.”

Reed looked at him strangely.

“I mean, uh …” Chris felt acid surge in his stomach. He shrugged, trying to affect nonchalance.

“Well,” Reed boomed suddenly. “What are we waiting for, people?” He clapped his meaty hands.

They reached the top an hour later, the crew gasping then groaning upon seeing that the plateau of the cliff Reed had forced them to climb flattened out into a forest floor dominated by tall, thick-limbed trees. The dense forest guarded another hillside, this one sweeping up into a ridge standing between them and anything that might be considered even remotely panoramic.

“All right,” Reed said, “no need to panic.” He consulted his map with furrowed brow. Chris scanned the forest, not particularly concerned about the fate of the excursion. Reed had invited him on it while making it clear that the journey was entirely optional—for the star. Curious, and with nothing else to do, Chris had tagged along, though he probably shouldn’t have. He had to stop talking to Reed. To anyone. They knew more about Thomson than he did. Thomson Holmes probably owned a float plane. He was probably in the goddamn thing right now.

“Lookee here,” said Reed, his thick finger trailing off the map and pointing into a slight opening in the forest wall. “That’s an old logging road. Goes right to the top, I think.” Map dangling from his thick hand, Reed stepped to the gap in the trees and squinted.

“Yup,” Reed boomed. “This is it! Let’s saddle up.” The going was easier on what had, indeed, been a rough road, though it hadn’t been used for at least ten years. The tracks, pushed into the hard dirt by who knows how many successive waves of thick truck tires, overflowed with sharp weeds. The flat part of the road had sprouted everything from sickly saplings to creeping raspberry and blackberry vines to feral thigh-high grass gone dry and yellow, thick straw clinging at them as they pushed through. They were moving faster now, steadily ascending despite the crew’s curses and gasps. Reed, who seemed to have given himself over to wherever the track lay, had gone voluble, waving his arms as he monologued.

“People think film is about bringing things to life, bringing things into the light. But it’s exactly the opposite, you know, Holmes?” Reed, swinging his arms and marching belly first, didn’t wait for a reply. “It’s about capturing life, using it, sucking up life and processing it. We have more in common with whoever made this road, with the loggers and poachers and zookeepers, than we do with the great artists of our time. No offence there, Holmes, but it’s true. We put people in cages and we aim our cameras at them and we take what we want, or at least what we can get from them. We don’t bring things to light; we use up all the light there is, all the light people have.”

Reed uttered his trademark guffaw, which promptly turned into his trademark dry cough punctuated by muttered expletives. Still coughing and clearing his throat, he suddenly shot forward, turned a corner, and disappeared. Way ahead of the rest of the crew, Chris quickly followed, thinking that enough world famous Hollywood types had already disappeared on his watch. He found himself striding up the last particularly steep patch of obsolescent road before lurching to a halt to avoid bumping into Reed, who was standing guard at the abrupt conclusion of their journey. Chris pushed in beside Reed, and the two of them stood, silent, transfixed, momentarily dumbstruck.

From the novel The Lost Expert by Hal Niedzviecki, published by Cormorant Books, 2021.

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