Spiegel & Grau: 260 pp., $15 paper
In his wonderfully mischievous new novel, "The Thieves of Manhattan," Adam Langer tells the story of an unpublished fiction writer who can't seem to tell a story other than his own. Then he makes a pact with a handsome literary devil who provides him with a decidedly unsentimental education in genre, commerce, life and love.
That's a lot to wrap your head around, which is par for the course in the postmodern novel. And when an author quotes with equal gusto from Jorge Luis Borges, Pippi Longstocking and Milli Vanilli, one nervously anticipates yet another exercise in promiscuously relativist hipsterism. Yet "The Thieves of Manhattan" is as soulful and morally committed as it is funny and clever. Where his narrator, Ian Minot, is helpless in the face of events real and imaginary, Langer is fully in control of his fictional world.
Langer has worked as an editor, published novels and a memoir, lived in Manhattan and presumably put in time as an unpublished writer, so he knows this terrain well. In Ian, he has created a kind of literary Everyman; a Midwestern transplant still raw from the recent death of his beloved father, he toils in a Manhattan coffee shop while wallowing in self-pity over the rejection slips — each one nastier than the last — that greet his plotless, nakedly autobiographical short stories.
Ian's contempt for the New York publishing scene, with its smooth-talking agents, swank salons and bestselling authors, grows in proportion to his lack of success. His ambivalent jealousy over the success of his girlfriend Anya, a gorgeous Romanian refugee whose gritty memoir of life under Ceausescu has won her a high-powered agent, pales before his disdain for the man for whom she leaves him. This is Blade Markham, whose own memoir, "Blade by Blade," tops the bestseller list. Blade is apparently an ex-con and one of the book's funniest caricatures, a venal "brother" festooned in gold chains and parked somewhere between P. Diddy and Sacha Baron Cohen.
If "The Thieves of Manhattan" were nothing more than a boisterous skewering of the crisis-ridden publishing industry — a soft target already heavily lampooned in countless romans à clef — it would still be a gas. But Langer has grander existential plans for his hero, if that's the word for this credulously unreliable narrator. Moping around his Harlem apartment, Ian is jolted out of self-pity by Jed Roth, a mysterious, snappily dressed editor who dangles before him the fame and fortune Ian pretends to scorn. The tradeoff? Ian will retool Roth's unpublished novel — an action-packed genre adventure about the theft of a manuscript of the world's first novel, "The Tale of Genji" — as his own, more marketable memoir. Once the book hits the bestseller lists, he'll retract it as a fake to boost sales even further. Shades of James Frey and Margaret Seltzer, attention-seekers who thrilled a gullible public (not to mention their editors) with trumped-up accounts of drug addiction and childhood ghetto traumas they never endured.
Thus does Ian, a committed realist who has yet to write or, for that matter, live an adventure of his own, become embroiled in a whole series of plots. As they unfold, he gets a life, writes more than one book and falls hopelessly in love. All of which forces him to reassess the hazy borders between truth and fiction, life and art and — here's a cracking Borgesian conundrum — whether the writer writes the story, or it writes him.
No one and nothing is quite what it seems: not Roth (pay close attention to the fact that Ian dubs him "the Confident Man"); not Anya, with her outrageously improbable "fekk" Romanian accent; not the thug who tries to wrestle back the manuscript; not even Manhattan itself, which ends up in Kansas. In a wonderful allusive literary trick that in less nimble hands might look like showing off, inanimate objects acquire literary monikers. An umbrella becomes a poppins; frizzy hair is an atwood; a short, sharp sentence becomes a hemingway; and throwing up when drunk is, of course, a palahniuk. As for Ian, he picks up a trendy new pair of franzens (I mean glasses), but the more street cred he accrues as he learns to talk the memoirist's talk and walk the walk, the more fraudulent he feels inside.
Read "The Thieves of Manhattan" once, and it's a wild ride through a ripping yarn. Read it twice, and you'll discover that Langer, unlike his unworldly protagonist, is a subtly cunning foreshadower of plot and theme. In addition, the novel is marvelously lacking in the facile, knowing nihilism that disfigures much contemporary self-reflexive fiction. Langer's prose is straightforward, his tone high-spirited, affectionate, romantic and, above all, generously humanist. As a writer and a man, Ian comes to realize, "The more time I spend with people, the more I like them."
By the end, Ian has earned his high principles and modified them also, embracing new literary forms, fresh realities and aspects of people he has hitherto dismissed as enemies of art and truth. He has kept the best of his old self, the realist writer and son of an upstanding father, and discovered that if fiction is all about making it up, you must first live a life and tell your "lies" out of the desire to have an honest conversation with someone, to tell the truth out of love. In these days of publicly sanctioned mendacity, the celebration of honesty is something to celebrate.
Taylor is a freelance editor in Los Angeles.