Saturday, September 21, 2013

Writers writing about writers

I have always found myself drawn to books about books. It is a natural consequence of being an avid, some would say addicted, reader. Books at the center of a crime? Books as a force to bring together disparate misfits? Books about magical books? Books about the publishing business? Books about the people who write books?  Cover blurbs mentioning any of these will get me interested enough to pick up a title and give it a go.

Books about writers are especially fascinating. Now that I am securely middle-aged and no longer fascinated by rock stars or Hollywood's latest hunk-of-the-month, writers top the list of people who I think do something interesting and by extension are therefore interesting people. I've never stood in line to get an actor's autograph, but I do it fairly regularly for writers.

Being at least a bit wiser than I was in my deluded younger days, I realize that reality and fantasy are very often not the same thing. Writers are as diverse as the population at large, and as with all groups of people, some are interesting and charming and warm. Others?  Not so much.

I know I am not alone in conflating writers with their work. How else to explain those writers who are legendary? That band who engender feelings of adoration and obsession that made them famous for being famous, as much as for their work. The list is filled with familiar names: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, and when I was a teenager (and until quite recently) there was the looming reclusive shadow of J.D. Salinger.

It has always been a mystery to me why Salinger was such a leading figure in the hearts and minds of many of my friends. I read Catcher in the Rye, everyone did, and hated it. To be fair, I'd probably be more open to "Catcher" now, but back then I decided Salinger wasn't for me and I've stuck to that thus far. I felt a bit like a lone oddball my friends carried around dog eared copies of Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey and vocally hoped that follow up books would yet appear.

Certainly the tidbits I've gleaned about Salinger through osmosis over the years haven't done anything but reinforce my negative opinion. So given these feelings about the man and his work, why did I leap at the chance to read Adam Langer's newest novel The Salinger Contract? The real question would be how could I resist this description:

An enthralling literary mystery that connects some of the world’s most famous authors—from Norman Mailer and Truman Capote to B. Traven and J. D. Salingerto a sinister collector in Chicago

Add to that, the narrator -- who shares the author's name -- and Conner Joyce, who confides his story to Adam, are both writers struggling in the wake of the changes in the publishing world. Conner is a formerly successful crime writer whose sales are declining now that his turf has largely been ceded to procedural television dramas. He reconnects with Adam when he arrives in Bloomington, Indiana on what can only be termed as the book tour from hell -- bookstores are a vanishing breed, fans are thin on the ground and all Conner wants to do is get home to his wife and infant son. Adam, who first met Conner when he wrote a profile of him for a now defunct literary magazine, is now a house husband to his academic wife wondering what's next. He wrote a novel, but it went nowhere, the only impact it seemed to have in the world was to estrange him from his mother. After a desultory evening licking their wounds at a sports bar, Conner heads to Chicago and Adam assumes that's that.

Adam is surprised when Conner gets back in touch within a couple of days to relay a wild tale of his meeting with the shadowy and outrageously named, Dex Dunford and his Eastern European bodyguard, Pavel. Dex, is offering to pay Conner $2.5 million dollars to write a new novel, for his eyes only. An outrageous proposal to be sure, but it gets crazier when Dex reveals to Conner that he has made a hobby of commissioning manuscripts by famous authors -- Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Harper Lee and others, including J.D. Salinger.

With this opening salvo, the book takes off and each twist of plot takes the story a bit closer to the absurd, managing to be simultaneously amusing and thought provoking. Because Langer stealthily uses the unreliability of both narrators to good effect I found I was constantly asking what and who I should trust. I was wary of Conner's tale to Adam, Adam's retelling of Conner's story, and Adam's portrayal of his own story -- after all, is Adam a character, or the author? It sounds torturous when described, but the actual reading experience was breezy and fun.

By the end Langer's narrative choices make sense and the plot is neatly concluded (spoiler alert: the title will make sense). I even found myself continuing to chuckle at how well the puzzles and clues all fit together.

The Salinger Contract is smart, great fun and a bit snarky about the publishing industry. I am enthused enough about it that found myself recommending it to a woman I encountered reading David Gilbert's & Sons when I took my cat to a vet appointment yesterday.  Gilbert's book is in many ways related to The Salinger Contract, but is less of a satirical romp and more of a self-important slog (with some good bits). By the time I finished gushing about Langer's book she was planning on picking up The Salinger Contract next. 

You should too.

Disclosure: I received access to an advance copy from the publisher via Goodreads in return for an honest review which to the best of my ability, is what I've written.

P.S. I'll be back early next week with more reviews of bookish books, it's a theme that has connected much of my seemingly disparate reading this summer.

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