If the obscurity of certain talented folk singers or film directors is proof, as their partisans will claim, that there is “no justice,” then the failed acting career of Eddie Hartley must prove that there is. Hartley, the protagonist of Christopher Beha’s propulsive second novel, “Arts & Entertainments,” was by all reports a very bad actor. “You couldn’t act sweaty if they sent you on a ten-mile run,” he once hears. From his own wife.
Back when Eddie was landing occasional off-off-Broadway roles and cop-show bit parts, his girlfriend was the considerably more talented Martha Martin, now a phenomenally popular TV star with a budding film career. For his part, Eddie listlessly teaches theater at his prep-school alma mater. He and his wife, Susan, are mired in debt from a fruitless attempt at in vitro fertilization, but eager, at least in Susan’s case, to raise funds for another try.
Looking to restore domestic optimism, Eddie gives in when an Internet “meme evangelist” offers serious cash for a sex tape Eddie and Martha made in their apprentice years. Not a man of great foresight or guile, Eddie hopes to downplay his involvement with the tape’s production and dissemination, and the lie he feeds Susan to explain his windfall is constructed with typical ineptitude. By the time the tape goes viral, Susan is pregnant with triplets, and Eddie is blindsided not only by her anger — she throws him out in front of reporters — but also by her decision to let her newly solo pregnancy fuel the latest vehicle from a Mephistophelean producer of reality TV.
For most of the book’s first half, the emotional stakes are low, as Eddie dumbly plots an upheaval of his and other lives for the sake of babies he doesn’t seem to want and a wife we hardly know. We understand that Susan, like the titular character of Beha’s pensive first novel, “What Happened to Sophie Wilder,” is a devout Catholic in an artistic milieu long on nonbelievers, but when Eddie, recalling his first encounter with Susan, doesn’t “really picture a person at all so much as a hazy, warmth-conferring glow,” we can relate.
This appears to be part of Beha’s design. It’s only after Susan becomes a TV star that Beha reveals more about her and we get a better sense of Eddie’s love for her. By this time, though, the Susan we’re getting is mostly the televised version. Where before she seemed to work without notable distinction at a Chelsea gallery, now she’s a glamorous, career-making veteran of the art scene, and she’s been edited toward middle grounds suited to male desire and security: “pretty but not overwhelmingly beautiful,” “smart but not intimidating,” “confident but not domineering,” “vulnerable but not needy.” Eddie, now a tabloid pariah, prefers this screen Susan, and the trap he set for himself becomes all the more inextricable.
He schemes his way onto “Desperately Expecting Susan” and tries to manufacture an authentic happy ending, but his agency is always in doubt, and it’s never clear whether his chief antagonist is the show’s producer or the public’s bottomless hunger for celebrities it can at once idolize, judge and devour. Beha’s targets are satirical standbys, but his aim is true, and by showing the allure as well as the evils of pop culture’s tawdriest manifestations, he has fashioned a story that’s both engrossing and implicating.
Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer, musician and author of the novel “Boarded Windows.”