You should go out this afternoon, even if it's snowing, and buy a copy of "A Likely Story" by Donald E. Westlake. Then you should take it home and read it in the privacy of your easy chair. The reason for reading it in private is to avoid what happened to me.
I am in the subway, and because I am in the New York subway -- and must therefore avert my eyes from my fellow passengers -- and because time is money, I have brought along "A Likely Story" to read. Before the next station has passed, I am choking with laughter and making strange noises and my fellow passengers are averting their eyes.
As it happens, I make my living pretty much the way Westlake does, by writing books. This involves me deeply in the insecure but merry world of publishers and editors. And Westlake has written an extraordinarily funny book about that world. It's about other things too -- loving, and not loving, and holidays and what they mean to civilized human beings -- but mostly it's about publishing, and it's extraordinarily funny. It is not satire, however. Satire requires exaggeration, and publishing stories need not be exaggerated to be funny. The truth, as Westlake demonstrates, is quite hilarious enough.
Let me hasten to add that nonwriters will laugh out loud too. I imagine that a potato farmer trying to sell his crop at a small profit to a big-time potato dealer has much in common with a writer, including tales that exactly parallel those of Westlake's hapless hero.
Writer Tom Diskant, separated from Mary and living with Ginger, is supporting an assortment of children, some of them his own, and three half-households. Around Christmas, he has a wonderful idea for a book. It will be a Christmas book, both commercial and good, filled with the writings and paintings of Famous Names both ancient and modern. It will sell many copies, everyone will be happy, everyone will like him, and he will make money, enough to support all these women and children and households for another year or so.
That's when his troubles begin. He has to deal with editors, who have a nasty way of dying or quitting their jobs or getting pregnant or being bumptious and inexperienced, all of which can be fatal to a book. He has to deal with dozens of Famous Names, writers and artists, people who, when invited to contribute to his project, ask awkward questions like "How much?" and he has to find his way through a thickening jungle of relationships: his agent, his wife, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's estranged husband, his children, his girlfriend's children, and his other girlfriend, who happens to be a rapacious editor. And then there's all the ephemera of ordinary, mundane, everyday life: holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, summer rentals and the common perils of life in the city.
Westlake knows what he's doing. He is a superb craftsman of crime novels, under his own name and as Richard Stark, and of a marvelous thriller, "Kahawa." He can write with a light, graceful touch. And when Tom Diskant in "A Likely Story" has to deal with the Famous Names -- everyone from Isaac Asimov to Stephen King to Richard Nixon to Andy Warhol -- Westlake's comic eye is hilariously perceptive and ruthlessly unsparing. The result is likely the funniest book of the year.
And here's the lovely irony. All the big-time New York publishers turned this book down. Why? Because it wasn't a crime novel, because it was different from Westlake's previous books, and -- one assumes -- because they didn't think it was funny and/or they didn't think it would sell. It was left to Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Press to publish it as the first title under his new nonmystery imprint, Penzler Books. So Westlake and Penzler -- and you and I -- can now happily enjoy the last laugh.