“Showbiz,” filmmaker Kenneth Anger once said, “is a synonym for sin.” Stories of sexual harassment and abuse now arrive as weekly, even daily, revelations. The deluge of accusations reminds us that at least for some time, Hollywood knew how to keep secrets.
Ross McMeekin’s debut novel The Hummingbirds is a Hollywood book. Full of secrecy and scandal, the novel shows us a world perfectly rehearsed and primped; its characters are devoted to keeping up appearances of fame, wealth, and success, even if it means living in an illusion.
Ezra Fog is a groundskeeper for a wealthy celebrity couple who rent a Los Angeles estate. He lives in the pool house, with a front-row view of Sybil Harper, the beautiful wife of filmmaker Grant Hudson. Ezra longs for Sybil, with her legs that “the public loved to gaze at, celebrate, and demonize,” but feels unworthy of her.
This fear and doubt spring from his memories of childhood, which was dominated by his mother’s involvement as a prophetess in a bird-deifying cult. His experience in the cult has stuck with him—a restrictive attitude towards sexuality, preachers who thunder about “God’s anger over our sinful and degenerate culture,” and his mother’s ecstatic visions of apocalypse. The flashbacks to Ezra’s childhood occur throughout the book and show just how much he has been scarred by the cult. By adulthood, Ezra has let go of his mother’s beliefs, but he has also inherited her manic passion. One manifestation of this is his obsession with photography, which began in childhood with pictures of the cult’s revered birds. Now Ezra is compelled to take shots of Sybil.
Stifled by her husband, Sybil longs to quit her increasingly lurid films and do serious work. She is attracted to Ezra’s oddness and vulnerability, and as she starts to see him as an escape from Grant, the two begin an affair. Sybil has aspirations that Grant won’t encourage: she wants to star in a “serious” film set in the Middle East, where Ezra can also capture the exotic birds he so loves in photographs. It seems perfect, but like his mother’s cult, this dream is built on illusion and obsession. Grant recruits Ezra to keep tabs on Sybil, and Ezra must choose which employer it’s more dangerous to betray: wife, or husband.