The line between reality and fiction is not so much blurred as stomped on in Adam Langer's amusing new novel, a satiric barb aimed directly at the literary world and those who seek to subvert it for fame, money and -- please God -- a shot at Oprah.
Author of three novels and a memoir about his father, Langer takes special delight in skewering the New York book scene, from its famous authors (``There was a trio of drunk writers, all named Jonathan, each of whom was complaining that the Times critic Michiko Kakutani had written she'd liked their earlier books better'') to its infamous literary hoaxes (``a drug addict and ruffian had exaggerated his criminal past; a purported gang banger from South Central L.A. turned out to be a prep school girl from the San Fernando Valley; a memoir of an abusive household was apparently a libelous childhood fantasy . . . ''). His references are clever, snarky and right on target.
Our narrator is bitter young Ian Minot, a coffee-shop barista who can't get anyone to take him -- or his short stories -- seriously. His rejection letters tend to run along the lines of ``Good luck placing this and all your future submissions elsewhere.'' His Romanian girlfriend Anya is named to the prestigious ``31 Most Promising Writers Under 31'' list -- a direct shot at The New Yorker's ``20 under 40'' canonization? -- and he's sick with jealousy over a poorly written, suspiciously implausible memoir by a thug named Blade.
Then a mysterious guy pops up at the coffee shop to offer Ian a chance to bite the hand that refuses to feed him. Take my unread, unloved, unpublished novel, he says. Sell it as a memoir. Watch the money roll in. Find yourself famous. Publish your stories. And then announce the book is a fake.
Ian simply can't resist the challenge, nor will book lovers resist this promising premise -- at first. Langer hilariously reshapes language to reflect Ian's obsession with literature (a shot of whiskey is a faulkner, while a gin rickey is a fitzgerald; a humbert is a perv and so on). Unfortunately, Langer undercuts the clever conceit by including an unnecessary glossary. Anybody sufficiently literary minded to appreciate the insider jokes is going to understand that ``franzens'' are a certain sort of black-framed glasses, and an atwood is a mop of curly hair. And can probably guess to which body part ``portnoy'' refers.
But the niggling misstep that eventually dooms The Thieves of Manhattan is the fictional story Ian passes off as a memoir, an adventure involving a mysterious girl, a rare book and a plot to steal it. The twist is that the story eventually begins to come true, with Ian faced off against bad guys. Instead of winding up a smarty-pants little gem, Thieves tries to woo us with preposterous action. Listen, we wear franzens. We're too hip for such foolishness.