Reviewed by James La Salandra
“Strange, he thought, how so much in life connects, so many disparate elements come together, and make some sort of sense in the end.”
The Man in the Seventh Row, film journalist Brian Pendreigh’s debut novel, is not particularly easy to summarize. Indeed, just as the story’s protagonist, Roy Batty, observes in the quote above, both the novel and its plot can be described as “many disparate elements come together”. And while it does, for a time, seem as if these elements might run the length of the novel in parallel lines, it is to tremendous effect that they do ultimately find each other. Part surrealism in the vein of The Twilight Zone, part bittersweet, nostalgic narrative reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, part romance rife with loss and redemption, The Man in the Seventh Row is many things, converging around the central theme of escapism by way of the cinema.
The novel opens by briefly laying the groundwork for the main plot’s backstory, describing a young boy’s introduction to cinema in 1962 Scotland. The reader is treated to an account of the boy’s fascination, not with the film itself—The Magnificent Seven—but with the shocking revelation, halfway through the movie, that lead actor Yul Brynner is bald. In such amusing, child-like wonder are the seeds of an obsession first planted. The boy spends the following weeks cavorting about in imitation of his newfound hero, galloping along atop an imaginary horse, felling phantom foes with a toy revolver. It is here that the author quickly establishes the love affair that will come to dominate the boy’s life, not between the boy and cinema, but rather between the boy and the escape of which theaters are merely the means.
The reader is then transported to the protagonist’s present, Los Angeles 1996, and introduced to him as the titular man in the seventh row. In this instance, the man is seated in the seventh row for a viewing of The Graduate, the movie which made a household name of actor Dustin Hoffman. Except this time, the character of Benjamin Braddock is no longer played by Mr. Hoffman. Making changes to older films was quickly emerging as a trend in those days—George Lucas was famously hard at work making adjustments to the Star Wars films at the time—and at first the man in the seventh row attempts to explain away the difference as similar meddling. He wrestles with recognition of the new face he sees upon the screen, responding with no undue amount of horror at the realization that, somehow, the face is his own. Far from the only deviation apparent to him as he looks on, the lines and entire plot veer markedly off course. No one else in the theater seems at all disturbed by the surreal events unfolding on the silver screen; only the man sees the altered footage. It is explained that this is not the first such instance of this strange occurrence, that the man had first witnessed a similar change while viewing The Magnificent Seven. His father had appeared, or at least it had seemed, among the Mexican peasantry. He experiences a longing to join his father, with whom he’d shared so many movie-going memories, upon the screen alongside Brynner and his posse. This important connection, between the past and the altered reality of the protagonist’s present, having been firmly established, the reader is once again plunged into 1960s Scotland.
As the novel progresses, meandering of this sort becomes the norm, permeated regularly with detailed analyses of dozens of films. In such instances, it’s difficult to avoid catching Pendreigh’s journalistic work emerging throughout the novel. At times, in fact, the summaries and analyses distract slightly with the tone of outright review. In addition to these seeming digressions, there are points at which it seems one or the other storyline has been all but abandoned, so tangential are the shifts in focus. In the ‘60s, young Roy experiences a fully realized and vibrantly elucidated childhood. The reader is treated to rich, detailed prose which leaves little doubt that there is some of the author in these stories. So much of what is described is readily identifiable to anyone who well remembers their own childhood. Gone is the dark sense of foreboding looming ominously over the head of the man the boy will become. Here, instead, is something akin to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, though the wickedness is far too distant to consider. When the story returns to Roy’s present, we find a shell of a man, shattered by a tragedy to be revealed in due time, certain that his fate draws nearer with every torn ticket stub. He meets a woman, Anna, and wrestles with the temptation to let her in, even as life seems to be preparing to let him out.
Despite the sometimes confusing juxtaposition of Roy’s past and present, as well as the seemingly vast contrast between the two, the novel remains thoroughly compelling throughout, so powerful is the author’s ability to craft each narrative. Though admittedly a somewhat challenging read, owing to these sudden leaps, the effort required of the reader is easily dismissed, and the culmination of the author’s efforts is truly breathtaking. As the two storylines converge, and as the meaning of the past catches up to the action of the present, the tragedy of Roy’s life and subsequent afflictions becomes all too palpable. Just as a moviegoer witnessing a film’s bittersweet climax, the reader is likely to find the occasional swelling of the throat, eyes filling slowly with a threat of tears.
Pendreigh’s infectious love of cinema and brilliant wordcraft combine to make for a singularly enthralling tale of one man’s journey through the hardships of life. Ultimately, The Man in the Seventh Row is not only a treatise on the respite afforded by the cinematic experience, but also an attempt to prove that, through the sharing of that experience, one might find a way back from such escapism. Just as Roy seems to travel into and out of his favorite films, so too can we all find ourselves traveling alongside Roy, and, triumphant and redeemed, find our way back to our own realities.