What a Novel Idea

By Elinor Lipman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 21, 2009


By Steve Hely

Black Cat. 322 pp. Paperback, $14

First, please know that the bloated, pretentious, overly adjectival sentences I'll be citing from "How I Became a Famous Novelist" are the deliberately atrocious faux fiction of narrator Pete Tarslaw, America's foremost literary opportunist.

Those very bad quotes assured me that I was in very good hands, starting with the book's epigraph from "The Tornado Ashes Club," Pete's hoped-for ticket to literary renown: "In strewn banners that lay like streamers from a longago parade the sun's fading seraphim rays gleamed onto the hood of the old Ford and ribboned the steel with the meek orange of a June tomato straining at the vine."

"You have to understand how bad things were for me back then," the book begins, winning me a second time with its hint that Pete may not be the cad and charlatan that his fondest literary goal -- to craft best-selling garbage -- suggests. He has been writing fiction of another sort, for EssayAides, a service for wealthy kids that turns their gibberish into polished college application essays. "They'd send you something about how Anchorman or the golf team had changed their lives. I'd . . . change Will Ferrell to Toni Morrison, and golf to learning woodworking from a Darfur refugee."

One propitious and beery day, Pete watches his favorite TV journalist, hot Tinsley Honig, interview best-selling novelist Preston Brooks, the overly acclaimed author most recently of "Kindness to Birds." (I laugh even as I type that.) It isn't so much the man himself who captures Pete's attention as his audience, the "young women in little sweaters and tight jeans, pliant and needy" who react to lines such as "slowly her fingers, rich in texture as a knitted throw rug, fitted into Gabriel's palm, stained by motor oil and bacon grease."

Pete figures he, too, could construct some "intricate latticework of literary sewage." After all, he notes, "If you could write a book and act like you meant it, the reward was a country estate and supple college girls." And he has a more pressing goal: humiliating his lost love, Polly, whose wedding invitation he has unadvisedly accepted. If as successful as he hopes, he "would walk in wearing a suit I'd paid someone to pick out for me. At the bar I would order something writerly, perhaps naming a Scotch they didn't have."

How to fast-track fame and fortune? Go to the bookstore and take notes. "People like love that crosses the years, funny workplaces, goofy dads who save Christmas, laser battles, whiny hags who marry charming Italians, and stylish detectives." Also remunerative: World War II, coffee, dogs, weather, Christianity, babies, plant names, secrets, promises, faintly heard songs and blue-collar touches.

To his dismay, Pete discovers that writing a thriller is hard work. "It's easy at first, describing your hero's monumental chin and iron-core integrity and so forth. . . . [But] every page has to be interesting and full of guns and veiled threats and snappy retorts. It's exhausting."

Soon, with a photo of Preston Brooks shoeing a horse taped above his desk for inspiration, Pete changes course. "With literary fiction . . . you can just cover everything up with a coat of wordy spackle. Those readers are searching for wisdom, so they're easier to trick." And trick he does, employing all the touchstones of mannered prose. "Luke gazed around the stout knotted walnut table at his new comrades: azure-eyed Marcel, Guillaume of the quizzical smile, Lavroche with his cheeks seared by knife wounds." His editor loves it. "Really owning earnestness," he gushes.

To author Steve Hely, nothing is sacred and all is skewered: critics, Hollywood, MFA programs, students, literary journals, panels, conferences and resulting hook-ups. The cynicism is delicious, the humor never broad, with just enough modesty and conscience seeping into the story to make our con artist lovable. I was sold, and sold again, jotting "eye" and "ear" next to my favorite lines, shorthand for yet another perfectly observed slice of life captured and condensed into a subtle zinger. "I've never read The Brothers Karamazov. I hear good things," Pete confides.

Just when I thought there couldn't be anything left to mock in Hely's bag of tricks, along came another brilliant passage mimicking, for example, a scathing review of "The Tornado Ashes Club," a fake reproduction of the New York Times Best Sellers list (at No. 7: "A Whiff of Gingham and Pecorino"), a wedding toast, a fiction workshop discussion and an Oprah interview with adopted Vietnamese orphan Ellen Krapowski, discussing her memoir, "The Luckiest Polack in Chicago."

"How I Became a Famous Novelist" is a cheeky book and a brave one, all but naming real-life literary emperors sans clothes. Hely is a Harvard Lampoon alum, so his brashness doesn't surprise. What does surprise is this novel's moments of sweetness. After all, the narrator's rude thoughts and crude ambition are fueled by lost love. I rooted for Pete, a scheming underachiever whom the late great humorist Max Shulman would have been proud to call his own. I may have read a funnier book in the last 20 years, but at this moment I'm hard-pressed to name it.

Lipman's latest novel is "The Family Man."

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