My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you’re a writer, editor, agent, or work in some other capacity related to book-publishing, or are even fleetingly familiar with the books on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ll instantly realize that this is satire is spot-on. It’s also obscenely readable. I finished it in two days. The last book I read took me a week and a half.
The premise is simple: Pete Tarslaw is a 20-something who writes for an essay mill, and hasn’t recovered after being dumped by his college girlfriend. When he learns she is getting married, he decides to become a bestselling author so he can rub her nose in it at her wedding.
Once he has his quest, Pete starts analyzing bestsellers to figure out what makes them so popular. This “rags to riches” section is the first half of the book, and contains some of the funniest writing about books I’ve ever read. For example, he concocts his own bestseller list, with titles like “Cumin: The Spice That Changed the World,” “Indict to Unnerve,” “The Jane Austen Women’s Investigators Club” and “Sageknights of Darkhorn.”
I won’t outline second section, “decline and fall,” except to say that Tarslaw does write a bestseller, but things don’t go the way he thinks they will. The dictates of the character and the story allow Hely less satirical latitude in the second half of the book, and though it isn’t as funny, it’s still excellent.
In the New York Times, Janet Maslin argues that Hely “doesn’t know how to end this book,” but I disagree. It’s not a perfect ending, and there’s a character who appears in one scene for the sole purpose of getting on a soapbox to offer an opinion, but those are small quibbles. By the end, Tarslaw has grown as a character, and for all the scorched earth in the first half of the book, Hely leaves us with a bit a paean to good stories and good writing. And the whole way, the story is a hell of a fun ride.
By the way, this book is one of the finalists for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I haven’t read the two other finalists yet, but Hely has set the bar pretty damn high.