Monday, September 20, 2010

The Thieves of Manhattan: Mmm...That's Good Satire

In the acknowledgments at the end of his hilarious new novel The Thieves of Manhattan, Adam Langer doles out "thanks to all the fake memoirists, fictional poets, literary forgers, and hoaxers who have provided such great inspiration." That's funny because it's true — this novel IS an inspired piece of fiction. It's a skewering of the publishing industry. It's an adventure tale, complete with a treasure hunt. And it's a treasure trove of inside jokes for literary geeks (Philip Roth signs a book to a smarmy literary agent: To Geoffrey, a true human stain...Cigarettes are called "vonneguts"...Trendy glasses are called "franzens".)

Ian Minot is a Manhattan coffee slinger, trying desperately to publish his short stories before the dregs of his inheritance run out. His girlfriend, Anya, has become a rising star, earning a deal to publish a book of short stories about her childhood in Romania. (Would she have gotten a deal if she wasn't from somewhere exotic?) When Ian, desperate for publishing fame, enters into a scheme to publish a fake memoir with a former book editor looking for revenge on an industry he believes has lost its soul, things go a bit awry. The line blurs between real life and fiction. And Ian finds himself running for his life.

The James Frey fiasco shines through clear as day (two chapters are even titled "Bright, Shiny Morning" and "A Million Little Pieces") as the go-point for this book. But with all the great jokes (see below for another), some hilarious caricatures, like an ebonics-spouting fella named Blade who becomes the toast of the literary world when he publishes a memoir about his gangsta life, and with the morph into adventure novel as the rubber meets the road on Ian's fake memoir plot, the novel moves way beyond what could have been a too-simple 250-page insult to Frey and other fakers.

At times you feel like Langer himself is angry or disillusioned, that he has his own axe to grind. At one point, he writes: "In the press, these hoaxes were viewed mostly as symptoms of a declining industry struggling for relevance and attention and a society of declining morals." More often, though, you get the sense he's just being funny — and it's pretty clear he had a blast writing this book.

For anyone interested in how the publishing industry works (or doesn't), and who enjoys a good laugh at its expense, this is a must. It's a slim little book, written specifically for literary nerds. And it's a whole lotta fun!

Another literary joke: Langer setting the scene at a party: "There was a trio of drunk writers, all named Jonathan, each of whom was complaining that the Times critic Michiko Kakutani had written that she'd like their earlier books better."


  1. I really enjoyed this book too! And your review made me remember what was so funny about it, hehe. I felt the same way when I was reading like one minute I thought the actual author must have had his own issues but then on other hand thought he was just hilarious. Definitely a unique book this one..

  2. This sounds EXCELLENT! I'd seen the cover float up here and there but never knew anything about it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. have you read his other books? crossing california and washington story are two of my favorite books ever, but they are ian minot-esque character pieces which don't strictly have a lot of plot. it seems like he's lashing out against a publishing industry that ignores books like that, and perhaps poking fun at himself since despite prominent review attention, i don't think either book really set the sales charts on fire.

  4. ps who do you think the three jonathans are? i am guessing safran foer, franzen and lethem.

  5. @Jenny - Yeah, the more I think about it, and in light of Joel's comment here, it does seem that his own axe to ground emerges a little more. Glad he did it in a sophisticated, funny way like this - instead of a bunch of angry tweets, ala Ms. Picoult.

    @Kerry - Hope you enjoy it! Really fun!

    @Joel - That would be my guess for the three Jonathans, as well. I keep laughing out loud imagining that scene. I have not read Crossing California - mostly because my girlfriend did and hated it, so I've stayed away - which is a shame since I live in Chicago. May have to now, though. Very interesting point about his own "small plotted" novels, too. So much going on in such a small little book!

  6. great review! I hadn't heard of this book but it definitely looks like something I'll need to pick up

  7. This book sounds great. I love the idea of calling ciggies "vonneguts" and trendy glasses "franzens." That's pretty much awesome.

  8. @Red - You should! Good times...

    @Ken - I think you would really get a kick out of this - especially after your post last week.

  9. Wow this sounds awesome. Must.buy.asap.

  10. definitely give cc a try. it's not really anything like TOM, though... (i live in chicago too, btw).

  11. First-time visitor.

    I am stopping from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party.

    Stop by mine if you like.