CBR #1: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Well, this is just dandy. Twelve days into the new year and already I’m a week behind on my Great Cannonball Read adventure. I’m such a slacker.

Pete Tarslaw would understand. He’s the protagonist of Steve Hely’s magnificent 2009 satire How I Became a Famous Novelist, which may well be the funniest novel I’ve ever read. Certainly it’s in the top two or three.

Seriously, every writer should read this book.

At the beginning of the book, Pete is an underemployed, under-motivated twenty-something who spends his days rewriting college admissions essays for spoiled foreigners and his nights knocking back beers in front of the t.v. and then — because he can’t be arsed to drag himself all the way across his crummy apartment to the toilet — peeing in the bottles, which are kept beside his bed. “My roommate Hobart, who was a med student, only once brought up the public health implications of this arrangement. My feeling was, if he wanted to do something about it, terrific,” Pete manfully confesses.

This barely sustainable state of affairs changes only when Pete receives a mass e-mail from The One Who Got Away, the lovely Polly Pawson. He and Polly dated throughout college, and he was perfectly happy shirking class and taking long naps with her. But on graduation day, she broke his heart by informing him that while he slept innocently during those blissful naps, she was cruelly betraying him by stealing out of bed and perfecting her law school application essays. She dropped poor hapless Pete flat for what was certain to be a bright future — and now she’s engaged.

Pete realizes that showing up at Polly’s wedding and having to tell all her lawyer friends that he’s a ghostwriter whose most recent professional triumph was getting a Japanese auto exec with limited English into Wharton just isn’t going to fly. Skipping the whole event is likewise not an option — face must be saved, after all. Inspiration strikes while he’s channel-surfing with Hobart and they come across an interview with one Preston Brooks, the folksy, sentimental author of such popular masterpieces as Kindness to Birds and The Widows’ Breakfast. Preston is, of course, an obscenely successful writer who is given to dropping such pearls of wisdom as “Some say the novel is dead. Well, some say the Devil is dead” and “Writing is a cudgel I wield to chase away the brigands who would burn down the precious things of the human heart.” No, really.

In a burst of intuition, Pete realizes that Preston Brooks is a hack and a phony and that if Brooks can be a best-selling novelist, surely he, Pete Tarslaw, should have no problem with that. How hard can it possibly be? Not only will he show up Polly at her own wedding, he figures, but he will pull in money hand over fist and get to sleep with a lot of comely undergraduates. It’s a practically foolproof plan.

First, though, he needs to crack the Novelists’ Code, which he does during an epic tour of his local big-box bookseller. He draws up a list of rules (“Must include a murder.” “At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals.”) He also scopes out the competition, including the aforementioned Preston Brooks’ extensive oeuvre, a series of crime thrillers featuring half-Cuban, half-Vietnamese investigator Trang Martinez, and my personal favorite, The Balthazar Tablet, in which “The murder of a cardinal leads a Yale professor and an underwear model to the Middle East, where they uncover clues to a conspiracy kept hidden by the Shriners.” Finally — with a boost from an illegal stimulant cadged from his roommate — Pete churns out his own manuscript, The Tornado Ashes Club, in which a man unjustly accused of murder takes to the open road with a recovering heroin addict/folk singer named Esmeralda, his grandmother, and the ashes of his grandmother’s One True Love, Luke. The climax occurs when the trio flings Luke’s ashes into a tornado on Christmas morning. He improbably sells this…remarkable work, and then he sits back and waits for the money to start flowing in his direction.

It works.

And that’s just the first half.

To find out what happens to Pete after he hits the big time, you’ll need to read the book. Along the way, you’ll get to read passages from The Tornado Ashes Club, as well as bits of screenplays, snippets of his aunt’s novel about the first female cooper in pre-Revolutionary America, work from writing classes (“Amelia, stunned, swiveled in her chair and faced Tom. ‘Confitrade may manage online investment portfolios in the convertible bond market, but they’re not making their money from growth assessment, Tom. They’re making it from cocaine!'”), and, yes, more of the wit and wisdom of Preston Brooks: “I call this [NB: his office] the dance hall…Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while.”

Everyone from writers to teachers to publishers to readers gets thoroughly skewered — Pete most of all, as he dimly begins to realize it actually bothers him that The Tornado Ashes Club is a cynical con and he, personally, is a fraud. The joke is that Pete’s not a bad writer, and at the end, there’s just a bit of hope that after he’s recovered from his inevitable fall (and it’s a doozy), he’ll still be capable of greatness, and not mere authenticity — hell, ol’ Preston is “authentic” — but something genuine.

If you’re being menaced by brigands who threaten to burn down the precious things of the human heart, or if you’re interested in the art and/or the business of writing, or if you just like to laugh, I highly recommend this book.



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