'The Thieves of Manhattan: A Novel'
By Adam Langer Spiegel & Grau, 259 pp., $24
In certain respects, these chaps resemble many of their older peers: they drink entirely too much coffee and beer, stare dreamily into space, and wile away the time on Facebook and at other similarly edifying Internet destinations. But they are not angry, in the way of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. Or droll, in the way of Gore Vidal. Or even particularly ambitious. Instead, they’re fond of irony, which, like Alanis Morissette, they tend to confuse with coincidence. Worse, they’re serious—the only people in the theater not laughing at the Joan Rivers documentary, because they’re too busy taking offense.
By the age of thirty, their parents surely hope, most of these dabblers will have undertaken something more remunerative. But those who persevere beyond thirty, with no sign yet of that coveted six-figure advance and 200,000 first printing, are nearly as easy to spot as their twenty-something counterparts. You see them all over New York: alienated metrosexuals hurtling toward middle age, creators all, who don’t appear to realize that wearing skinny jeans is a privilege, not a right. Of course, one hates to indulge in generalizations or to propagate ungenerous stereotypes. Who, after all, can afford to join David Barton on a barista’s salary—or, for that matter, on a freelance writer’s? And besides, regular exercise only distracts from the hallowed labor of committing words to the screen.
Honest people will acknowledge that caricatures, no matter how parodic, sometimes hew uncomfortably close to reality. The protagonist of Adam Langer’s hysterically funny new novel, “The Thieves of Manhattan,” might be any number of struggling writers who are no longer young and who, for whatever reason, haven’t made it . . . yet.
Ian Minot writes short stories, but he’s no Susan Minot. Too old to qualify as one of a leading magazine’s “31 Most Promising Writers Under 31,” his slight paunch an irritating reminder that youthful success has eluded him, Ian works by day at Morningside Coffee. By night, after a fashion, he tries to write. He’s a discerning reader, with a keen eye for what’s good and what’s not; maturity, then, has given him a slight edge over his younger compatriots, whose catholic tastes have yet to acquire focus. Another difference: Ian is not a man of independent means; he worries about money. Still, for all his separateness from the city’s twenty-something aspirants, he is hobbled by a lingering naïvety that shrewder writers of a certain age probably would have shed. He’s followed the right steps—dutifully submitted his stories to literary agents, diligently tried to cultivate rock star publishers while serving cocktails at their parties. And he’s written what he knows, as the sacred maxim of fiction writing goes. Trouble is, what Ian knows isn’t terribly compelling. He’s from rural Indiana, the only child of a university librarian and a law student, who died when Ian was an infant. His father’s death seven years earlier rendered him an orphan, albeit one with a modest inheritance. But that money is dwindling faster than Ian’s already attenuated self-esteem. Who wants to read about that?
As the novel opens, Ian has begun to doubt the power of fine prose to advance his career or, indeed, anyone’s. Writing well, it dawns on him, is only the best revenge for people who care about writing well. Poor Ian is on the side of the angels—a decent, cruelly self-effacing aspirant to literary stardom who treats what little good fortune comes his way as fleeting at best, accidental at worst. He isn’t entirely alone, however. For the past six months, he’s been keeping company with “the kind of woman you wanted to help without even considering what you might get in return.” That is, a dangerous kind of woman.
Ian’s failure to place any of his stories with a literary agent—and therefore with a respectable publisher—might be less distressing if not for the supreme narrative gifts of his beautiful twenty-six-year-old girlfriend, a Romanian émigré named Anya. Anya, whose heavily accented speech Langer reproduces to great comic effect, has remarkable autobiographical stories to relate. And she’s writing them with enviable confidence and speed. One night, while Ian fades in and out of consciousness, she sits in bed beside him “scribbling furiously in a journal, her pen clawing and scratching the paper.” Anya’s story collection, informed by the events of her pitiless childhood in Bucharest, promises to be a sure-fire hit. But bless her, Anya recognizes Ian’s writerly gifts and assures him that fame and recognition will find him; it’s only a matter of time, she says.
On the night that Ian glimpses Anya working in bed, he longs in his dreamy state to possess “her sense of purpose, her drive, that feeling that everything was at stake.” Suddenly, the fog of sleep disperses and the cold reality of Anya’s ambition overtakes him. Ian spies, out of the corner of his eye, the business card of a slick literary agent named Geoff Olden, who once returned Ian’s submissions with a spectacularly vicious note: “Good luck placing this and all your future submissions elsewhere.” Olden had given Anya two cards at a monthly reading for up-and-coming fiction writers. Anya had blown him off. “What a bonch of kripps,” she said of Olden’s clients and then, for Ian’s benefit, made a show of tearing Olden’s cards to shreds. Anya’s sly and who can blame her? The joke is on Ian. “I knew that our relationship would never last,” he’d told himself on the day of Anya’s reading.
Perhaps Anya is as self-promotional as the worst of her species, but at least she’s talented. The same cannot be said of others who have ascended Olympus. Ian could be accused, justifiably, of being willfully naïve to the demands of the marketplace—of pretending that writing isn’t really a business. Yet he’s no fool, and he’s getting wiser (and angrier) with each passing day.
The immediate source of Ian’s rage is the publishing industry’s slavish devotion to mediocrity or, in this instance, outright garbage that also happens to be a pack of lies. Ian reserves the bulk of his fury for a man who embodies the ugliest trends in book publishing— Blade Markham. While Ian has been sequestered in his “Harlem garret,” writing what he knows, Markham has taken the country by storm with a best-selling memoir—“Blade by Blade”—about his extraordinary adventures as a one-time heroin addict, member of the Crips, soldier in the first Gulf War, Buddhist—“and,” Ian mutters to himself, “whatever else he’d made up.” How this “old-school hopper” has managed to hoodwink thousands of book buyers Ian cannot fathom. Everything about him, from his gangsta threads to his rhetorical “yos,” screams fraud. As Ian puts it, Blade Markham is “probably just some rich boy from Maplewood, New Jersey, whose real name was Blaine Markowitz.” Think Beastie Boy, trapped in an irony-free zone.
Markham, clearly, is best observed from a vast distance. Watching Markham “hawk his memoir on the biggest book show going” may be nauseating, but it’s preferable to seeing Anya on his arm. Before long, Ian’s grim prediction about his future with Anya has come to pass. She leaves him. But for Markham? How? The imperious Geoff Olden, Anya’s new agent and Markham’s too, helped bring them together. “Ve should heff earlier, Ee-yen,” she says before walking away, “Vhen ve both vere different pipples.” Anya isn’t famous—her book isn’t remotely finished—but in this world of inflated and premature expectations, her spectacular promise counts for a great deal. With the right agent and the right boyfriend, Anya is indeed a different person—better, certainly, than Ian.
The fear of being left behind by someone you love because they’ve become famous may not be widely shared, but it’s a heart-stopping fear if you have a legitimate claim to it. Apart from writing well, what’s Ian to do? Salvation, or what masquerades as salvation, arrives at Morningside Coffee in the unlikely form of an erstwhile editor who lost his job for refusing to acquire Blade Markham’s manuscript. Jed Roth and Ian both despise Markham; both are frustrated writers; both have a lot to prove, and avenge. Ian has cause to wonder if their meeting is coincidental. Roth, it emerges, has read Ian’s stories, which, as an editor, he declined to publish. “They’re smart, well-turned, but the fact is, they’re just too quiet and small,” he explains to Ian. “Nothing ever really happens in them; nothing much is at stake.” Alice Munro might beg to differ, but she belongs to another time. And she’s no Blade Markham.
Roth tells Ian that he can’t win if he doesn’t play, that he has to make a splash before he’ll be taken seriously. The stories won’t cut it. But there’s hope, Roth says. Ian can become a star, if he agrees to publish Roth’s outlandish unpublished novel as a memoir. And then, once the book has achieved the legendary status of “Blade by Blade,” Ian will announce the memoir as a fake. And then, Roth insists, Ian will have a captive audience for his real work. Hope springs eternal.
Ian loves Roth’s novel, he has to admit. And he gets why no publisher would touch the manuscript, which might be descried as a cross between “The Maltese Falcon” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As fiction, it’s too unrealistic, too detached from the so-called lives of everyday readers. A mysterious fire at a private library? A purloined book worth untold sums? A gun toting “foul-mouthed manuscript appraiser”? A vanished girl whose connection to the fire and manuscript remain tantalizingly unclear? So nineteenth century. Or something.
Flabbergasted as he is by Roth’s proposal, Ian takes Roth’s point: such a preposterous story could only succeed as a memoir. Look at Blade Markham. (Consider, too, James Frey.) Ian ultimately agrees, out of financial desperation, to publish Roth’s novel under his own name as a “true story.” Ian is in for a bumpy, terrifying ride. What’s in it for Roth? Is Anya really who she portrays herself to be? Is Roth’s novel actually a memoir, after all? Will Ian become the writer he’d always dreamt of becoming? You’ll have to read “The Thieves of Manhattan” to find out, and you’ll be glad you did.
Although Langer’s frequent allusions to the arcana and grandiose personalities of book publishing will escape some readers, his vaguely antique complaints about readers’ pitiable, lowbrow tastes will come through loud and clear. But in this climate, Blade Markham’s triumph at the expense of truth should be the least of Ian’s worries. Anyone who set out to become a fiction writer as few as five years now confronts as stark a landscape of diminishing possibilities as any conjured up by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath." If I were Ian, I'd be scared witless by the prospect of earning a $30,000 advance for a novel that takes three years to complete. So it seems somehow quaint to rail against philistines who write for the polloi and for big money. They’ve always been with us; our definition of blockbuster junk has simply changed through the centuries. This fact escapes Ian (who, don’t forget, craves a wide readership and a fat advance as desperately as any writer). Like scores of his real-life contemporaries, he forgets that megaselling authors such as Blade Markham make it possible for the rest of us to write. Whether they’re deceitful or not is really beside the point. When they go, well, you do the math.
These, admittedly, are disagreeable subjects. For his part, Adam Langer has written an immensely clever novel, by turns tenderhearted and satirical—an affecting, altogether plausible portrait of one writer’s passage through good times and bad. Yes, the book is a send-up of an industry obsessed with the bottom line and embarrassingly susceptible to James Frey’s snake oil charms. Yes, Langer’s critique is accurate and amusing. But “The Thieves of Manhattan” is finally a marvelous yarn, a glorious paean to good books and to those who shepherd them into the world, a tale of redemption as cheering as Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys."
Here is the sort of book that makes you root for those young men who can still fit into their skinny jeans, and for those who can’t. May they flourish.
Kirk Davis Swinehart, a frequent contributor to the Tribune, teaches history at Wesleyan University.
Find Adam Langer's books and other titles at the Chicago Tribune Amazon store.
"The Thieves of Manhattan: A Novel" By Adam Langer
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