James Magnuson’s cheeky ninth novel, a triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper, is narrated by a sleazy antihero who just might win the day.
Frankie Abandonato, a New York con man and “world-class liar,” on the lam from a murder scene where he got too good a look at the perps, heads for the nearest airport and any flight to anywhere fast. He is mistaken upon landing for the famously reclusive, Salingeresque author V.S. Mohle. Mohle’s magnum opus, “Eat Your Wheaties,” about a New York prepster, is everyone’s favorite novel and touchstone — “such an overwhelming success he went a little bonkers and retreated to this island off the Maine coast where no one had laid eyes on him in twenty-five years.”
Mohle had accepted an invitation from the Fiction Institute of Texas to teach on the down low. Ostensibly, he wants to make peace with the institute’s founder-philanthropist, the world’s oldest and possibly richest novelist, Rex Schoeninger. (Decades ago, during their legendary fistfight on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Mohle characterized Pulitzer Prize-winning Schoeninger’s work as “cut-and-paste sludge.”) But while waiting to board his — and Frankie’s — flight to Texas, Mohle grows increasingly agitated when recognized by a fan and flees.
Upon arrival in Austin, the look-enough-alike Frankie (both being “dark-haired, fiftyish, sharp-featured, a little on the shifty side”) gets his first whiff of hero worship from the welcome committee of two misapprehending graduate lovelies, sworn to keep the real Mohle’s visit secret. “As far as we’re concerned,” one of them confides, “you’re the invisible man.”
“I can’t tell you how much that means to me right now,” says fugitive Frankie, one of the few truths he has to offer.
Con man through and through, he plays along. “This being mistaken for a famous writer had its upsides,” he notes. Not to mention its perks, starting with a swanky house and the astonishing bottom line that keeps him from boosting a car and taking off: $75,000 for a mere 15 weeks of teaching and impostering.
Leading seminars is the biggest challenge. The only workshop he’d heard of before this ruse was Santa’s. Called upon to discuss his students’ stories “felt like a bad day in front of the parole board.”
But his students’ pedagogical losses are the reader’s gain. Magnuson, who directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, has a faultless ear for the bombast and earnestness of workshop dissections. “They had no end of suggestions. More of the mother. Less of the mother. Turn the mother into an aunt. . . . Where they really went nuts, though, was when they caught somebody using a cliche. Apparently it was considered worse than murdering your children.”
With teaching tips from the Internet and coaching from the program director — the author of a remaindered novel about “growing up in North Dakota and discovering a sack of drowned kittens” — Frankie begins “to pick up some of the creative writing lingo.” “The students would be jabbering away about the third person versus the first person,” he says, “and I’d be wondering, where did the second person go?”
Yes, it’s plot-heavy. (Frankie would approve; he says of his students’ work: “What they turned in weren’t stories. Nothing happened in them. A divorced father buys a Christmas tree for his kids and when he tries to decorate it, the lights won’t work.”) Twists and turns involve Schoeninger’s fortune, which inspires Frankie to dream up grant-worthy mawkish projects.
Of course, the jig has to be up eventually. That’s no spoiler: The story comes framed with a prison stay. “How far I had fallen,” Frankie laments. “It had just been a few months before that I’d been sitting at a table, surrounded by adoring young women, discussing point of view.”
Magnuson’s hilarious descriptions satirize everything sacred and MFA-ish in Frankie’s line of sight, like “a slender volume of short stories by some glum-looking loser you’ve never heard of.” It’s all crazy and coincidence-heavy, with the impersonation requiring on-the-job mental agility that Frankie the punk couldn’t possibly pull off. But as both Johnny Carson and David Letterman have said, “If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.” And how remarkable that we root for Frankie, self-described as a “selfish little menace to society,” as he is converted, while committing crimes against humanities, to a lovable literary naif.