Thursday, August 13, 2009

A novel notion of success

Steve Hely's hilarious How I Became a Famous Novelist exposes painful truths about publishing, the blockheads who write for money, and the people who actually read their "work"

"Nor do I cut book reviewers any slack for 'advancing the culture' or 'calling our attention to good work' or keeping the culture of letters alive.' If a guy drove a truck around your neighborhood, pointing out which people were too fat, he would be advancing wellness, and calling fitness to our attention, and keeping public health alive. But you would hate him. You would throw rocks at him, as well you should."
--Pete Tarslaw, The Tornado Ashes Club

When Pete Tarslaw, who ghostwrites college and graduate school admissions essays for a living, finds out that his college sweetheart is going to marry another man, he decides he needs to take revenge by becoming rich and famous and showing her what she's going to miss. To do this, Tarslaw decides to write a bestselling book. After all, he reasons, any idiot can produce a huge commercial success. And, in this richly comic novel, Steve Hely shows us an idiot who does.

That's not to say that Tarslaw doesn't lay the groundwork for his eventual "triumph." He scopes out the marketplace to see what will work. He knows he can't write a memoir, because, he explains, "I had a tragically happy childhood. Mom never had the foresight to hit me or set me to petty thieving or to enlist us in a survivalist cult. I wasn't even from the South, which would've bought me a few dozen pages. Lying wouldn't work; these days memoir police seem to emerge and make sure you truly had it bad. And the bar for bad is high -- reviewers have no patience for standard-issue alcoholics or battered wives anymore."

Instead, he haunts bookstores, where he encounters titles like the presumably fascinating micro-history
Cumin: The Spice that Saved the World or the inspirational coaching missive Jockstraps Ain't For Eating. Tarslaw knows from the start that his goal is to write an awesomely bad novel; he wants to surpass the drivel he sees correctly sees as dominating the business, and early on targets Kindness to Birds, a mindlessly inspirational feel-good book by a pompous ass named Preston Brooks, as his standard. To that end, he stitches together every cliche he can think of and stuffs them into a novel he calls The Tornado Ashes Club, about a young man wrongly accused of a crime who goes on the lam with his grandmother, whose long-lost lover fought in World War II (and Peru, among other places) and the beautiful singer they pick up along the way. A friend who works in the imploding publishing industry convinces her desperate boss to take Tarslaw on, and then tries, with uneven success, to make the book coherent.

And: Not much happens. When the novel unaccountably gets the attention of a reviewer at the
San Francisco Chronicle, he dismisses it as "a slurry of mixed images and tiresome characters, in language as worn out and withered as [a] sixty-some-odd bar slattern." Tarslaw is wounded. But the slam also marks the beginning of a steep ascent that will rocket him up the rankings, lead to sexual encounters on the convention circuit, and get him meetings with screenwriters and talk show producers, as well as a few less conventional developments. And, of course, a memorable moment at his ex-girlfriend's wedding (though not one Tarslaw himself will be able to remember).

Hely, a veteran television writer whose credits include
The Late Show with David Letterman, has clearly seen, up close, more than his share mediocrity in show business (he's also the author of a comic travelogue of a trip around the world, The Ridiculous Race, with one of his colleagues). He has a pitch-perfect ear in mocking both the rituals and products of the publishing industry, as well as the various rules and examples his protagonist generates in preparation to write the book (the actual writing, Tarslaw finds out, "is a tremendous pain in the ass"). How I Became A Famous Novelist itself, however, unravels at it proceeds, because Hely can't seem to integrate his goals of mocking Tarslaw, mocking the industry, and leaving open some space to acknowlege truly good work. Like his main character, Hely has difficulty with the execution.

Still, this book is good fun most of the way. And like a lot of fiction these days, it's been issued as a paperback original, so it's $14 (at most). All in all, a nice way to finish the summer. If nothing else, get it for Hely's mock New York Times bestseller list, with its capsule summaries of bestsellers like Indict to Unnerve or Empenadas in Worcester. That stuff is priceless.