‘The Fan’, the Epistolary Novel, and the Lost Art of Writing Letters


A epistolary novel is a refreshing experience after reading a series of books with the same standard, narrative form.  I picked up Bob Randall’s The Fan in the library years ago, thumbed through it, set it back down, and never read it.  Somehow, I came across it on Amazon a few weeks back, hardcover and at a discounted price.  I went ahead and bought it and thought I would watch the 1981 film adaptation afterward, since I had never seen it.

The story is a series of letters between the characters.  You get some of the physical descriptions here and there.  You begin to picture these people in your mind.  Stage and screen star Sally Ross has turned 50 (but doesn’t want you to know it) and occasionally laments over her physical appearance, her fading youth, and all that.  “The Fan” of the title, Douglas Breen, takes great effort to describe his looks and all his attributes in graphic detail to “his” Sally.  He’s her greatest fan, and he’s half her age.  It doesn’t take long to figure out he’s also a raging psychopath, even before Sally’s salty secretary Belle Goldman gets knife-attacked in the subway after setting him off. (In the 1981 movie version, he slashes poor Maureen Stapleton with a straight-razor—obviously inspired by the Angie Dickinson elevator murder in Dressed to Kill the year before that.)

Again, all told in back-and-forth letters between the characters, and done brilliantly.

The only thing I chuckled over during the reading was Douglas Breen’s prose in his letters.  No twenty-five-year-old man alive today would write in such a way.  His overactive vocabulary had me reaching for a dictionary at times.  His lurid descriptions of sexual fantasies with a woman old enough to be his mother often turned to pure cheese.  In one deranged letter to Sally, he refers to her breasts as “firm double fruits from a Garden of Love” (p. 106, if you want to skip ahead).  I won’t even say how he describes areas “farther down.”  Where is E.L. James when you need her?

I wondered if maybe this was intentional on Randall’s part, since he was writing from the point of a view of a maniac.  Sally, Jake, and Belle were witty and intelligent in many of their exchanges.

Psychos and stalking aside, reading this book made me think about the lost art of letter writing.  When is the last time you wrote a letter to someone?  I’m not talking about a reminder note but a real, paper-to-pen letter.  Where you stuff it in an envelope when you’re done, slap on a stamp, and stick it in the mail.  For me, I honestly don’t remember.  Anyone under the age of thirty who reads this probably doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

I suppose an epistolary story could be written today with emails instead letters.  At one point in The Fan, police commanders, officers, and detectives are writing letters to one another.  I found that part a bit incredulous.  Today, the police business of the story would be more realistic if told through texts and emails.

I must say this challenged me to perhaps one day try writing a story this way.  Not only is it a different approach, but even more challenging when it comes to a point-of-view switch on practically each page.

I had never heard of Bob Randall, the author, when I bought this book, so while reading it I decided to look him up.  I thought maybe I would write him an … email?  Unfortunately, he passed away from AIDS complications in 1995.  Randall wrote a handful of books, though he was mostly known as a playwright.  I enjoyed The Fan so much I decided to order two more of Randall’s novels on Amazon.  Sadly, the shipping and handling cost me more than the books.  Bob Randall deserves a better legacy.

After I finished the book, I rented and watched the film adaptation of The Fan on Amazon Prime.  Not bad, but the book was better.  Lauren Bacall does a magnificent job as an aging star, though her singing leaves something to be desired.  Sally’s horrific Broadway show at the end, well, don’t even get me started.  Think of everything you hate about the John Travolta movie Staying Alive and multiply it a few times.  James Garner plays her ex-husband Jake, who’s there in the flesh in the movie, though they remain on opposite coasts in the book.  Maureen Stapleton, whom I mentioned earlier, does a great turn as Belle, who’s just as snappy and crusty in the movie but a little less potty-mouthed (in the novel, she writes a letter to a cranky, complaining neighbor, telling her to “fuck yourself”—my kinda gal!).  Michael Biehn, who went on to The Terminator and Aliens, is wonderfully creepy as the psychotic Douglas Breen.

The book and the movie have different endings.  I won’t give spoilers, but the book’s was a little less uplifting than the movie’s.



For more information on The Fan, or to order, click on the photo for the Amazon link.



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