I’ve been staring at my bookshelf trying to figure out whose writing style Don Ryan reminds me of in his first two novels. It must be someone from after the First World War, when the sedate style of earlier years gave way to more journalistic prose. No one quite fills the bill. I’ll just need to keep thinking, I guess. Don Ryan (1889- ?) was a newspaper columnist in Los Angeles through most of the 1920s. He wrote for the movies from 1925 to 1941 and published his fourth and last novel in 1954. This book, by the way, has nothing to do with the 1953 Billy Wilder film of the same name.
A Roman Holiday by Don Ryan. Macauley (1930), 319 pp.
This novel is divided into two parts of nearly equal length. The first part, which starts before American entry into World War I, focuses on Tom Egan and Diana Hunter. Both are in their twenties. Tom, who still lives with his wealthy family in San Francisco, is trying to find meaning in his life. He worries especially that Nietzschean individuality is disappearing in modern society. Diana, whose real name is Maggie O'Hara, is a dancer at a Tijuana bar. She’s smart, ambitious, independent and uninhibited – qualities that soon lead her to bit parts in the movies. When the United States enters the war, Tom joins the Army. He meets Diana at his training camp near San Diego. It’s not long before the two begin an affair, one which has more staying power than either anticipates. The second part of the book tracks the vicissitudes of Diana’s film career in the 1920s.
Despite some gripping battlefield scenes, A Roman Holiday is essentially a story about the movie industry. The book provides many insider descriptions of movie makers at work and play. It offers some big-picture analysis too. Tom, a devotee of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, believes that Hollywood is purveying schlock to the numbed masses. Diana, on the other hand, eventually (and surprisingly) shows that movies can become a true art. As in Angel’s Flight (1927), Ryan employs a rambunctious style that features snappy dialog, outbursts of one- and two-word sentences, and frequent shifts from past to present tense. Unfortunately, he emulates a major problem of the earlier book by concocting an ending that seems forced and inappropriate. In any case, Diana Hunter emerges as the most complicated and self-sufficient woman in any Hollywood novel of the 1920s and 1930s. The book is must-reading for aficionados of movie fiction and could interest a larger audience as well.