Does everyone remember Bret Easton Ellis—a member of the literary brat pack who became famous (infamous?) after the publication of his novel American Psycho? Author Jamie Clarke certainly seems to.
Clarke’s darkly thoughtful novel Vernon Downs follows the life of wannabe author Charlie Martens, a character who “is desperate for stability in an otherwise peripatetic life.” Charlie’s story is a bleak one—he was orphaned and then passed from home to home. He goes to junior college and that’s where his obsession with fictional author Vernon Downs begins.
He tries to arrange a meeting with the author to—what else—impress a girl. This attempt fails, but Charlie’s interest in Downs doesn’t fade. The book follows Charlie’s growing obsession with Downs, which becomes even more intense after Charlie moves to New York City, interviews Downs, and becomes a sycophantic member of Downs’s dysfunctional circle.
Where does Bret Easton Ellis come in? One of the book blubs states “Vernon Downs is a fascinating and sly tribute to a certain fascinating and sly writer, but this novel also perfectly captures the lonely distortions of a true obsession.” Who might this sly writer be? Bret Easton Ellis would probably be a good guess (particularly since Clarke confirms this in an interview with ArtSake and thanks Bret in the acknowledgements).
Clarke has known Ellis for some time. Much like Charlie interviewed Downs, Clarke interviewed Ellis in the late ‘90s and later relates:
“I lost touch with Bret after I left New York in 2000, though I never lost interest in him as a writer. As I got older, I started to think about the idea of a famous writer as a mentor to a wannabe and how every protégé/fan is one part assassin. I loved the idea of using my acquaintance with Bret as background for a story about young writer’s admiration for another and everything that that means. So I wrote a draft of Vernon Downs in 2005 or so. Bret read it and liked it, but I remember his abiding comment was that the character based on him didn’t have the kinds of flaws he has in real life and he encouraged me to really explore that more.”
While the character of Vernon Downs may be connected to Ellis, Clarke doesn’t seem to be the basis for Charlie. Clarke is an accomplished professional who is knowledgeable about the book industry: he has an M.F.A. from Bennington, owns a bookstore in Boston called Newtonville Books, founded a literary journal, and has written/edited numerous books. His current book is published by Roundabout, an independent press, and perhaps not surprisingly, Clarke has asked that readers not purchase Vernon Downs from Amazon.
Charlie, on the other hand, doesn’t even make it through community college and then sneaks his way into a writing workshop, which he pays for with a credit card “confident that the summer writing conference would be over before the transaction was processed, at which point he would call MasterCard and refute the charges…” He’s also the last person to speak during workshops—uncertain how to critique the work that was so much stronger than what he encountered during his brief time at the community college.
Based on Vernon Downs, Clarke would have no such trouble. Vernon Downs is a well-written book, authored by someone who pens his story both compactly and descriptively. The pace is sometimes a little uneven, but the writing is compelling and draws readers into this sad and somewhat frightening world.
The front book blurb, by author Tom Perrotta, calls the book “A gripping, hypnotically written and unnerving look at the dark side of literary adulation. Jaime Clarke’s novel is a cautionary tale for writers and readers alike—after finishing it, you may start to think that J.D. Salinger had the right idea after all.”
Considering the celebrity-obsessed culture in which we live, Perrotta does seem to have a point, but his comment also might raise a question. Vernon Downs is an author who has fans. He’s the kind of author whose lunches get interrupted by people wanting his autograph. In truth, he doesn’t always seem to mind the attention and even Charlie is surprised by how predictable Downs’s email address is. And while no one wants a stalker/obsessed fan, I do have to wonder if the J.D. Salinger mode is still possible for writers today.
In an age where fans feel like they are part of Veronica Mars because they donated five bucks on Kickstarter, where books are promoted via Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, where authors volunteer to join book clubs via Skype, and where Margaret Atwood tweets on an almost daily basis—is being reclusive still an option if you want to sell books?
Vernon Downs will make readers think about a lot of things (almost too many things, at times). Certainly, as the book jacket maintains, obsession, loneliness, and celebrity culture are central to the story, but Clarke also seems to have things to say about the state of the publishing industry and what it means to be an author.
Consider two of the authors depicted in the book. It’s interesting to compare Downs’s world of fancy cocktail parties and obsessive fans to the world of Robert Holanda, Charlie’s creative writing teacher at the community college. Holanda reappears later in the book, when he gives a reading at a Barnes and Noble store.
The Barnes and Noble employee who introduces Holanda mispronounces his name. The majority of the folding chairs are empty, and the small audience is composed of a homeless women with “her tattered plastic bags full of who knows what” and a handful of former students. Nevertheless, Holanda reads, answers questions, and dutifully signs the stack of books Barnes and Noble has ready for him. Charlie is, of course, quite contemptuous.
Clearly, Clarke has some points to make, but it’s just as clear that Clarke is smart, stylish writer who created a page-turner of a book that will leave readers with, again, a lot to think about.