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2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, by Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks in 2008

Ric Francis/The Globe and Mail

Comedian walks into a publishing firm.

"Have I got a book for you!" he tells the unsuspecting soul in charge of unsolicited manuscripts. "It's a story set in America 20 years in the future, when cancer has been cured, people routinely live past 100 and robot companions are a reality. In other words, life in America is still pretty much miserable."

No way of knowing if that was how Albert Brooks pitched 2030: The Real Story of What Happens in America, but he is a comedian, and considering the years he's spent in the movie business, the deal could have come together that way.

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2030 is a first novel for Brooks, whose entertainment career could only be described as erratic, at best. He broke in as a standup on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, segued into a short filmmaker on Saturday Night Live, and then, straight into the maw of Hollywood, appearing both in mainstream movies or stories of his own design.

Therein lies the distinction that has long separated Brooks from his comedy peers: He's always better in other people's work.

Brooks was a scene-stealer in his first fleeting film appearance in Taxi Driver. He was perfectly cast as the frustrated TV reporter in Broadcast News and beyond endearing as the voice of a father fish searching for his son in Finding Nemo.

In between those films, Brooks has steadfastly written, directed and assumed the leading-man position in more personal stories, in movies such as Real Life, Lost in America and Defending Your Life. Funny, sure, but not mainstream Hollywood funny.

Brooks's low point likely came with 1999's The Muse, an abysmal comedy in which he played a Hollywood screenwriter convinced that a blonde beauty (Sharon Stone) was the key to unlocking his creativity. Almost all of his personal projects were box-office bombs, but this was the first one openly savaged by film reviewers. It was seven years before Brooks wrote and directed another film.

Which in a roundabout way explains this novel. As Brooks has repeated countless times on talk shows in recent weeks, he wrote the story on spec, following decades of movie scripts confined by budgetary realities. Handed the ball on such an unencumbered playing field, he runs in five directions at once.

It's probably not his fault. The first third of 2030 is furiously fast and funny. In lieu of a central protagonist, the rookie author races at breakneck pace among four characters.

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Those being: Brad Miller, a dyspeptic 80-year-old Jewish man reduced to living in a tent city following a massive Los Angeles earthquake; Sam Mueller, the immeasurably wealthy scientist credited with curing cancer; Kathy Bernard, twentysomething, hobbled by her father's debt and drawn to a handsome young radical; and, most notably, President Bernstein, America's first Jewish president - well, half Jewish, at least (Brooks can't resist the line: "If you're running for president, even living on the same street as a Jew makes you one").

However well-etched, the players gradually dissolve under the broad strokes of Brooks attempting to tell his Great Big Story while keeping his reputation for dark humour intact.

In Brooks's vision of the future, the fact everyone is living longer initiates nationwide hatred of old people, to the point of terrorist activity against seniors. The near-decimation of Los Angeles creates the financial crisis that nearly undoes America, if not for the divine assistance of China, by then the most powerful nation on the planet (which anyone could have predicted, by the way).

As a novelist, Brooks is eventually undone by his very profession and - much like a Brooks movie - 2030 falls apart in its second half.

An experienced author knows how to put characters through the requisite literary growth curve; Albert Brooks is a comedian and screenwriter by trade. Ergo, once his characters exist, all he knows how to do is make them say funny lines.

And that's fine, sometimes. When Brooks writes about Oregon becoming America's suicide state of the future, he can't resist the suggestion that their tourist board consider the slogan: "See Oregon before you die."

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Everyone loves a good joke, now or in the future, but you shouldn't be able to see the punchline coming.

Andrew Ryan writes on television for The Globe and Mail.

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