"The Thieves of Manhattan," by Adam Langer

(Courtesy Of Spiegel & Grau - Courtesy Of Spiegel & Grau)
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By Frances Stead Sellers
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Having written three novels, Adam Langer has demonstrated that he's pretty good at making things up. He's also tried his hand at telling what actually happened, in "My Father's Bonus March," a memoir of his father published last year. Now, with "The Thieves of Manhattan," Langer has reverted to fiction to say more about the tricky topic of writing truthfully. This fourth novel is not just about such postmodern questions as "Whose truth?" that bedevil every memoir writer. It's about actual fact and true lies and all the half-truths and shifts in perspective that hover in between and form part of the creative process.

Langer sets his story in a New York publishing world that's become so enamored of the first-person confessional that every aspiring writer needs a rags-to-riches story or, better still, a history of alcoholism or childhood abuse to achieve recognition, and maybe even celebrity status.

Langer's hero, Ian Minot, makes his way to this memoir Mecca from a nowhere town in the Midwest to seek his fortune. Minot brings with him a few thousand dollars of inheritance and the kind of high-minded "theories of honest writing and narrative authenticity" that he soon discovers will condemn him to literary irrelevance. He finds it particularly galling when a man he pegs as a total fraud gets a half-million-dollar advance -- and guaranteed stardom -- for a spare-no-details story about heroin addiction, the time he spent with the Crips and the month he went AWOL during the first Gulf War. "Everything about Blade Markham seemed like some kind of lie -- his words, his shabby outfit that he'd probably planned out a week in advance, even the cross he wore around his neck."

When Markham also succeeds in winning away Minot's stunningly beautiful Eastern European girlfriend, Anya, Minot determines to get revenge -- not just on Markham but on the whole corrupt publishing world. He agrees to team up with another man who says he's been burned and proposes an elaborate plan to expose the rampant literary fraud for what it is: Minot will take his new partner's rejected novel and rewrite it as his own memoir. Once it's been declared the success it is guaranteed to become with that patina of authenticity, Minot will reveal the whole story to have been a lie.

Except nothing is quite what it appears, and nobody quite who or what they claim to be in this rollicking romp through bookdom and beyond. Langer peoples his story with recognizable characters playing fictional roles: Author Francine Prose makes an appearance at an agent's high-end book party, for example, across the room from the stately figure of Henry Louis Gates Jr. "toting a walking stick and wearing a tuxedo." And there are echoes of real-life literary events: readings at New York's KGB Bar and the exposure of a duplicitous memoir writer in an incident that evokes Oprah's upbraiding of James Frey for embellishing his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."

The perfect summer read? Almost. The phonetic representation of Anya's pouty Romanian drawl becomes a little tiresome. And Langer sprinkles his satire with a lit-crit vocab -- complete with glossary -- that is perhaps a touch too self-consciously clever: A "hemingway," for example, is "a particularly well-crafted and honest sentence"; and "daisies" are dollars, so named after "The Great Gatsby's" Daisy Buchanan, about whom Jay Gatsby remarks, "Her voice is full of money."

But this is a very funny book with some very serious messages. Langer's most obvious target, of course, is "the fake memoirists, fictional poets, literary forgers, and hoaxers" whom he thanks for providing "such great inspiration." But he is clearly weary of the contemporary appetite for exhibitionism that made the tell-all tale into a dominant literary genre.

A rather sanctimonious Minot ultimately regains control of his work -- and his life -- by deciding to write for his reader rather than for agents or editors with their crass commercial goals: "As I wrote, I vowed to myself that this would be why I always would write -- to tell another human being a story, one that felt meaningful to me, whether it actually happened or I had just made it up -- and I sensed that, now that I had lived a true adventure, I knew how to make one up pretty well." Without the publisher corrupting his relationship with his reader, Minot can successfully write the truth.

The most troubling message to take away from "The Thieves of Manhattan" is that we may be witnessing the death throes of an industry that is in the process of shedding its basic values for the sake of making a quick daisy.

Sellers is an editor at The Post.

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