The Literary Con Game
Pete Tarslaw, the desperately hopeless protagonist of Steve Hely’s bracingly funny debut novel, takes his own sweet time figuring out how to actually do what the title of the book announces. We’re about 50 pages into How I Became a Famous Novelist before Tarslaw gets around to cracking the task at hand. In short, he Googles some stuff and wanders around a chain bookstore before creating a list of rules (“Rule 1. Abandon truth.” “Rule 2. Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book.” “Rule 6. Evoke confusing sadness at the end”) that will help carry him through.
It’s a tough road, of course, as Tarslaw doesn’t have all that much to start with. He’s an antisocial vessel of college-educated snark and why-bother who barely holds down a job cranking out essays (school applications, mostly) for people who would rather hire someone to write about their lives than do it themselves. Sure, it’s the kind of job that keeps him writing, but it’s not much of a living. There’s a lot of sitting around the apartment with his strange roommate and ruminating about how everyone has a better life than he does.
So when Tarslaw (who’s single, if you can imagine) gets invited to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, it sets something off. But instead of self-actualization, he feeds that energy into a quest to become a brilliant novelist. Actually, Tarslaw’s quest has more to do with being able to show up at the wedding and saying he’s a critically acclaimed, bestselling author. Just for spite.
Which means he can’t afford to leave any possibility for popular acclaim untouched. Memoirs are good, he reckons.
Sadly a memoir wasn’t an option for me, because my youth had been tragically happy. 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 a few dozen pages. Lying wouldn’t work; these days memoir police seem to emerge and make sure you’ve had it truly bad. And the bar for bad is high—reviewers have no patience for standard-issue alcoholics and battered wives anymore.
Tarslaw seems at first not so much a character as he is a tool that will enable Hely to put a high-velocity slug right through the heart of every sacred cow in the publishing industry. Given Hely’s resume (writer for Letterman and American Dad, co-author of the moderately funny and prank-filled travelogue The Ridiculous Race), it’s little surprise that he’s able to make Tarslaw’s blundering doofus odyssey as compelling as it is.
What’s surprising here is how note-perfect so much of Hely’s satire is, even filtered through Tarslaw’s embittered gaze. With his rapid-fire and reference-laden style, Hely skates the thin edge of overkill, another few ticks more fury and the whole thing would have curdled. But though Tarslaw’s self-hating rage burns with white-hot potency (“Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine”), it never tips over the edge into pure fantasy.
Beyond establishing the tried-and-tried rules of writerly success (“Rule 12. Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness”), Tarslaw also has to get down to the work of mimicking all the greats he hates/emulates—which just provides Hely with more opportunities for dead-solid mimickry. There’s Preston Brooks, an earthy and grit-filled author of tear-jerking (but manly) tomes that come off like some unholy combination of Pat Conroy, Nicholas Sparks, and Cormac McCarthy. You have Nick Boyle, the gruff Tom Clancy stand-in, and Pamela McLaughlin, an amalgamation of just about every hybrid forensic expert/crime novelist on the market, only hotter.
All make cameos as Tarslaw ventures further into this imaginary literary landscape whose lodestars are one part bestselling buzz and two parts Oprah, and whose pettiness, vacuity, and trendmongering are (just about) as potent as in real life. By the time Tarslaw punches out his masterpiece, The Tornado Ashes Club (“Rule 5. Must include a club”), he has so thoroughly compromised what little moral fiber he had left that there’s little he won’t stoop to in his quest for superstardom
It could have all been very rote and overly inside, probably, if Hely didn’t possess the instincts of a good television-trained smartass. He keeps Tarslaw bouncing from one monumental screw-up to the next novel-plotting ploy with a rollicking cynical energy before sending him into the true lion’s den: a collegiate writing program.
Before long a different kind of note rises from the book’s comedic ferment, a clear and insistent reminder that amidst all the (seemingly) good-natured conning and just plain getting-by that so many authors must partake in, there is something in literature pure enough to still be corrupted. Perhaps even something that cannot and should not be mocked. That a satirist with as unerring aim as Hely should risk making such a suggestion is impressive.
Perhaps the only thing better would have been if Hely had actually gone out and written The Tornado Ashes Club, just to see if he could. And to see if it would sell, as it no doubt would.