Portrait of the Damned by Richard McKaye. Twayne (1954), 142 pp.
Seminarian turned filmwriter Dan Seer has gotten his big break. He successfully pitched a biblical story to producer Aaron Aaronberg. Now he's working on the screenplay for what has become an epic in the DeMille tradition. As shooting is about to start, Dan feels less and less comfortable, not only with the movie but with his whole life. It's Hollywood's ever-present quest for self-gratification that's bringing him down, especially since he himself has fallen victim to it. He can't rationalize his affair with Marie, his boss's sexy wife, or his rejection of Nancy, his attentive friend who pines for his love. Dan's problems will only intensify when he learns that the script needs big changes in a big hurry.
As a rule, a novel wants to be taken pretty seriously if it begins with a long quote from a Christian existentialist. (That's Nikolai Berdyaev in this case.) The book's acerbic character descriptions thus represent not Dan's cynicism -- the story is told from his viewpoint -- but the author's own observations. And Dan's inability to cope with Hollywood's ambition and narcissism signals not an idiosyncratic psychological problem but the perils of freedom in a world filled with temptation. McKaye probably wants readers to take the title literally and to extend its scope not only to Dan and his movie-making associates but to mankind as a whole. Fortunately, the novel can be read merely as a tale of decent guy out of sync with the mores of tinsel town. With its heavy themes suppressed, the book makes an engaging if sometimes fervent read.