If you were a writer, would you accept a deal to write a book that would only be read by one person, in exchange for two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars? Sounds like a no-brainer to me—the only downside is you might write your magnum opus and it would sit in obscurity on a rich man’s book shelf instead of garnering world recognition. In Adam Langer’s new novel “The Salinger Contract,” Conner Joyce is offered this unusual deal: write a book for an eccentric millionaire and never show or tell another soul about it. It doesn’t take long for Conner Joyce to accept and, naturally, it turns out to be a bit of a deal with the devil.
The story is relayed through Joyce’s friend, Adam Langer, much like Nelly Dean conveying the shenanigans of Heathcliff and Catherine down the road. Langer shares many similarities with the author, beyond his name—he’s from Chicago but lives in Bloomington, Indiana, he’s a former editor of a New York magazine that folded, his wife is a professor. There’s something charmingly egomaniacal about the author naming his fictionalized character after himself—as if to prove once and for all that we really are the superstars of our own lives. The character, Langer, is experiencing the tortured luxurious existence of a house-husband whose spouse waits patiently for tenure at Indiana University. He’s a down on-his-luck author, estranged from most of his family who he portrayed in a thinly veiled roman à clef, and is something of a publishing pariah, having also lost his job as a book editor at a Manhattan magazine. When Conner Joyce swans in with his curious story about his contract, Langer’s feelings barely proceed beyond pure envy. After having distanced himself after his own experience, the idea of writing a book for an audience of one seems ideal.
Chicagoans who are already fans of Langer’s work (and I can’t imagine a Chicagoan who wouldn’t love his work) are sure to embrace his Lake Shore Drive locations and spot-on descriptions of The City. “I knew his city better than any other city in the world. I was born here; I grew up here, went to college here, worked writing news copy for the radio station, drove the CBS Radio company car to press conferences all over the city and suburbs. I wrote travel articles about Chicago, met my wife here, set my first and only novel in the neighborhood where my mom still lived—in the drabbest part of the north side, a neighborhood of alleys, walk-ups, gas stations, convenience stores, graveyards, dentists’ offices, and strip-mall Asian restaurants and karaoke bars.” There’s nothing quite like reading a great book that takes place in the city you love. This IU grad got an extra treat with nearly half of “The Salinger Contract” neatly set in Bloomington’s backroads and coffee shops, beloved restaurants like Uptown Cafe and the Laughing Planet. I haven’t had that pleasure since the late Carol Shield’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Stone Diaries.”
Langer cleverly mixes actual people into his book, name-dropping Mark Ruffalo, Thomas Pynchon and Chicago celebs like Steve Edwards, but he only attributes negative aspects to the fictionalized ones—like a British writer who has struck it big with a horrible series about vampires. This slim mystery (published, by the way, in paperback) goes by quickly. Joyce’s story grows more bizarre, and Langer becomes more dissatisfied by his role as unpaid confidant. Just as it starts to merge into the territory of bubblegum fiction, Langer pulls a swift u-turn and brings it back to the type of gorgeous storytelling he’s known for. (Kelly Roark)
“The Salinger Contract”
By Adam Langer
Open Road, 283 pages, $16.99