If success is a coin-flip, aspiring writer Ian Minot seems destined to perpetual tales. At 31, he’s too old for precociousness—the wunderkind ship has sailed without him—and yet even the growing stack of rejections can’t entirely mask the dregs of his Midwestern earnestness. And so he toils away, submitting his narrowly autobiographical short stories to all the right agents and editors (“Good luck placing this and all your future submissions elsewhere,” reads one particularly vicious response), lurking in the periphery of all the right parties, busily networking with no one. The majority of his energy, it seems, goes into stoking his hatred of Blade Markham, whose obviously fake, tales-of-the-‘hood memoir has captured the hearts and minds of Manhattan’s media elite.
That his unnervingly whimsical girlfriend is on the brink of New Yorker-sized success for “We Never Talked About Ceausescu,” a story collection chronicling her impoverished childhood as a Romanian orphan, only exacerbates Ian’s anxieties. (“Maybe if I were a beautiful Romanian orphan, I’d write better fiction too,” he muses.) Ian is not, you might say, at the top of his game when he finds himself taken under the wing of “The Confident Man,” a dandyish ex-editor with a vendetta against the industry that betrayed him.
Like Ian, Jed Roth “intended to devote his life to books—writing them, reading them, selling them” and takes it personally when his publishing house trades literature in for self-help and celeb tell-alls. “Of course it’s personal,” he tells Ian. “You spend your life trying to tell stories that are true, and you get nothing to show for it. Then you see some con artist getting rich writing a memoir full of lies. How can you not take it personally?” Unlike Ian, though, Roth has a plan.
Together, the pair will pass off Roth’s novel—a bookish adventure “too implausible, too slight, and too shallow,” to be published as fiction—as Ian’s memoir. Then, they’ll reveal Ian as a fraud. The Confident Man will wreak his revenge, and Ian, all the more famous for being phony, will secure a second book-deal for his “real” work. And yet the more entrenched Ian becomes in crafting his faux-history, the more the author, Chicago native Adam Langer, erodes the line between truth and fiction. As the layers of Langer’s world implode, he writes himself into a three-way battle with Ian and Roth for authorial control.
Skewering the solipsism of the New York literary scene, Langer is making fun of his audience even as he’s identifying himself as one of them. In the way of satire, you’re best primed to get it if you’re on the inside—certainly, “Thieves” doesn’t demand that you’re publishing-obsessed, but it does include a glossary in case you’re not. It’s a book for people with strong opinions about Jonathan Franzen’s glasses—either you’ve dated men in “franzens” or you yourself wear “franzens” or you’ve cultivated a contrary loathing for both the man and his “franzens.”
If his relentless cleverness is occasionally grating—and it is—it’s a forgivable offense. “Thieves” is more than an exercise in Langerian wit. Buried under his outsized characters and absurd hijinx is a remarkably nuanced portrait of what it is to be alone and flailing in the big city. Indeed, someone who has not just finished the novel might dare to call it “true.” (Rachel Sugar)
“The Thieves of Manhattan”
By Adam Langer
Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $15 (paper)