Ted Heller’s brazen, often hilarious and always disturbing new novel, “Pocket Kings,” is a hybrid love letter and suicide note to 21st-century publishing.
Forget coffee spoons, his anti-hero Frank Dixon measures his life in Amazon rankings. And as “Pocket Kings” begins, according to the most angst-inducing algorithm in the world of letters, Dixon is America’s 711,653rd most-popular novelist — and falling. Dixon’s first two novels, neither of which he is able to think about “without being overwhelmed with pride, despair, bewilderment, and rage,” were published to modest acclaim and then promptly dispatched to the remainder warehouse. Now he can’t find a publisher for his third novel, the first pages of which early readers, including his wife and literary agent, have found so offensive that they can’t continue.
The cumulative effect of this crisis is a severely strained marriage, a crippling case of writer’s block and an emotional breakdown that prompts Dixon to take stock of every aspect of his career and the industry that he blames for its downfall.
This is where “Pocket Kings” gets simultaneously thrilling and disturbing, and where Heller — son of the late Joseph Heller — is at his most fearless. First, Dixon uses his free time to dabble in the world of online poker where, to his surprise, he fares much better than he has as a writer. His online persona is enormously profitable and popular in the realm of sexy avatars and casino chatrooms, but that success only seems to fuel his literary rage.
He can’t help fantasizing about exacting revenge upon those who have wronged him, including going to a book party and punching one or all of the “Jonathan David Safran Franzlethchabeggars” who are basking in the limelight that should have been his. He begins stalking his agent as well as former and would-be editors. Frustrated, he wonders why no one in publishing gets any work done in December. “Do they all go to St. Bart’s together to shred manuscripts, toss up the confetti, and pretend it’s snow?!” He attends readings at the Union Square Barnes & Noble only to heckle a reviewer who once wronged him and a popular author who offended him by not following proper blurb etiquette. As word spreads and Dixon’s behavior worsens, he’s banned from future B&N readings and becomes the butt of jokes.
Like Gogol’s disenfranchised clerk in “The Overcoat,” Dixon is transformed into a sort of ghost haunting every facet of the literary industrial complex, playing on the conscience of a failing publishing model that has forced thousands of Frank Dixons to roam the bookstore stacks and Amazon rankings, fending for themselves.
Soon, Dixon’s online life becomes as complicated and destructive as his life as a neglectful husband and disillusioned novelist. What seemed at first to be a smart if limited satire about publishing and online gambling becomes an illuminating and fully realized story about identity and reputation in the digital age. At its best, “Pocket Kings” explores authentic existence and the desperate extremes to which a man will go to be recognized in an industry that he, like so many others, despises and loves.
Othmer is the author of the novel “The Futurist” and the forthcoming novel “The Last Trade,” written as James Conway.