Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is Michael Libling’s debut novel. It is a kind of culmination – not a final one, by any means – of a career steeped in storytelling, science fiction, mystery, and pop culture the stuff that piques his interest, and part of what, I believe, led him to create, nearly four decades ago, The Trivia Show, Montreal’s beloved Sunday morning tradition on CJAD 800 Radio – the writing of which he entrusted to me when he moved on.
The Trivia Show went on the air in 1981 and has remained one of Montreal’s top-rated radio programs. Libling left in December 1999.
While writing and co-hosting the show, he wrote copy for various ad houses before launching a successful freelance career. But his lifelong love was writing fiction. Hollywood North began as a short story originally published in the venerable Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was nominated for the 2015 World Fantasy Award.
A film buff might be forgiven if, upon hearing the novel’s title, he or she reaches for what might sound like a historical chronicle of moviemaking in Canada – which does play a major role in the novel.
The story focuses on two reluctant best friends, Gus and Jack, and their sidekick, Annie – Libling’s versions of Frank and Joe Hardy, and Joe’s girlfriend, Iola, all referenced in Hollywood North. Clearly Libling’s youthful interests inform the novel – the Hardy Boys, classic mystery movies, Alfred Hitchcock, Superman. This is a book that novelist Michael Chabon would surely enjoy reading.
“Jack was the boy who found things,” reads one of the novel’s epigraphs. “Annie was the girl who believed in things,” explains another. And Gus, says yet a third, “was the boy who wanted things”.
Gus narrates the story, looking back from some present time – whatever time in which the reader picks up the novel – and flashes back, through a 1988 train trip from Winnipeg to his hometown, to Trenton of the early 1960s, when the three friends happen upon a mystery. An unearthed collection of intertitles from Trenton’s silent film era sets them on their path delving into the town’s many secrets.
What unfolds is a gripping story with stock film noir characters. The villain – a newspaper photographer who at first befriends the kids, tries to scare them off, warning them that they’re playing with things they don’t understand. I’d half hoped that the novel would end with him waving his fist saying, “And I’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”
There are other villains – bullies, the school principal, mean grownups. Indeed, the kids’ own parents dismiss their escapades as the stuff of imagination, a classic literary device that readers might recognize from the Netflix series Stranger Things.
There is a reason stories like these are set in childhood, and why that appeals to us. Grownups forget that there is nothing quite as adventuresome – or as painful – as childhood. The kids in Hollywood North inhabit a universe that is apart from, yet infinitely more interesting than that of their parents. In one exchange, when Gus admits he’s afraid, Jack nudges him further into adventure, saying, “You think I’m not? But I’ll tell you this, it’s a whole lot better than being bored. There’s only one thing we need to be afraid of and that’s growing up.”
Binge-watching a TV series is really no different than staying up into the wee hours to read just one more chapter of a compelling novel. Hollywood North certainly is that. Binge-reading is encouraged.