“Every artist is a cannibal,
every poet is a thief.
They all kill for inspiration
And sing about their grief.”
In About the Author, a psychological suspense novel that explores the gray area between persona and anima, John Colapinto gives the reader a peek into the high-powered world of commercial book publishing and introduces two of the most unlikely apartment mates since Felix and Oscar.
Cal Cunningham is a roguishly charming writer wannabe who’s moved to New York City with grandiose visions of a meteoric ascent to the top of the bestseller list and a niche in the upper echelons of Manhattan’s literary elite. However, in two years he hasn’t managed to put one word down on paper. His time is consumed working as a stock boy in a bookstore during the day, womanizing at night and lying to people about the upcoming publication of his nonexistent Great American Novel. Moreover, he suffers from a permanent case of writer’s block that he blames on his relentlessly dreary roomie. Stewart Church is a law student and is as dull as Cal is dynamic. Stewart is a dateless dweeb, a textbook-guzzling grind, a creative cipher with no life of his own apart from casebooks and a computer:
. . . Stewart did not fit my . . . idea of the kind of person I would end up living with in Manhattan. I was an aspiring author and thus viewed my every action and utterance with an eye to how they would appear when fixed in imperishable print. As such, I considered myself to inhabit a higher plane of existence than people like Stewart. He so clearly belonged to the trudging armies of nonartists, of mere human beings: the workaday drones who live out their unobjectionable lives, then pass, unremembered . . . into oblivion.
So great is Cal’s disdain of Stewart that their only point of regular social interaction is “the weekly de-briefing session,” during which, under Stewart’s meticulous attorneylike questioning, Cal recounts in vivid detail his recent sexual conquests. Cal convinces himself that these salacious monologues of his are the “rough drafts” of the literary masterpiece he isn’t getting around to writing and are satisfying his roomie’s “sad and slightly squalid need” for a “vicarious taste of life.”
But there’s more to Stewart than meets the eye, as Cal begins to learn. His nerdy co-renter is actually a “closet writer”—and a remarkably gifted one, at that. He’s written a rough draft of a novel, which Cal discovers while he’s snooping around in Stewart’s desk. It’s not just good, it’s brilliant—much better than anything Cal could write. And to Cal’s horror, Almost Like Suicide is about him, exposing him in stunningly crafted prose as the dissolute slacker he is, complete with word-for-word transcriptions of the weekly monologues that he’d regaled his roommate with for nearly three years. Cal is outraged: “Stewart had . . . snitched my life.”
Cal plans to take legal action to prevent the book from ever being published. Before he can do so, though, Stewart is killed in a freak traffic accident. Cal, ever looking for a fast-track to fame, shrewdly reassesses, gets over his indignation at Stewart’s unflattering literary portrayal of him and decides to jumpstart his career by publishing Almost Like Suicide under his own name. The book is a runaway bestseller that makes Cal a rich man and a lionized celebrity, but success comes at a high price and sets off a bizarre and terrifying chain of events that turns the American Dream into a nightmare.
Cal quickly becomes like a circus juggler, walking a tightrope while trying to keep all the plates spinning on their sticks at the same time. His initial deceit rapidly tangles itself into a vast web of prevarications, misrepresentations and connivances as complicated as a Gordian knot. In the endless effort to keep anyone from discovering that he is a literary fraud, his moral compromises multiply, as do the rationalizations and justifications for his bad behavior and wrongdoings. He’s occasionally plagued by conscience, but fear of exposure easily overcomes any scruples he might like to fancy having.
Worse still, the ghost of Stewart haunts him at every turn. The need to make sure that no one who knew Stewart ever read the rough draft of Almost Like Suicide drags Cal deeper and deeper into the secret life of his former roommate. When a blackmailer emerges from the sordid shadows of Cal’s own past, armed with the hard evidence to prove the popular author is a plagiarist, Cal is drawn into a murderous conspiracy that leads to a shocking climax at the book’s end.
In Cal Cunningham, Colapinto has created a character so urbanely amoral and artlessly adept at deception of self and others that he could have stepped out of the pages of The Portrait of Dorian Gray. With every smooth move, subtle twisting of truth, and bold parry-and-thrust to maintain his advantage, Cal both shocks and delights the reader simultaneously. He is, without doubt, one of the most charming and appealing bad boys to grace a novel in many a year.
Colapinto has also pulled off a remarkable literary feat by making his protagonist a man who dies on page 25. Stewart Church, by his very palpable absence, dominates the book until the very last sentence as his hidden life, secret loves and unfulfilled dreams are revealed throughout the course of the novel. By the close of the book, the irony of the title has become clear. Despite Cal Cunningham’s narcissistic and self-obsessed narration, the story is ultimately about Stewart Church, the real author, who simply refuses to pass unremembered into that oblivion that his poseur of a roommate foresaw as the fate of the “nonartistic.”
About the Author is written with a brisk elegance. There are no superfluous words in these 250-odd pages (a rather short novel by today’s standards), but the descriptive passages retain a remarkable richness that perfectly captures the mood, the scene, the emotion at hand. Colapinto’s chatty narrator Cal’s frequent digression into intriguing discussions with himself on ethics, existentialism, psychology, artistic integrity, the creative process, and the criminal mind lend a pleasantly cerebral quality to this suspense story.
The proliferation of highly publicized plagiarism scandals in the last few years involving well-known novelists, as well as historians such as Alex Haley, Stephen Ambrose, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, makes About the Author a particularly timely and interesting book on the motives—and mistakes—that keep literary fraud a perennially popular story in the news.
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