The first line of this book scared the crap out of me.
In strewn banners that lay like streamers from a longago parade the sun’s fading seraphim rays gleamed onto the hood of the old Ford and ribboned the steel with the meek orange of a June tomato straining at the vine.
This continued for two full pages causing me to seriously consider jumping in front of a passing train.
Fortunately, I powered through and discovered that these first two pages were not by author Steve Hely per se, but by his protagonist/narrator Pete Tarslaw, in the form of an excerpt from the book that made him famous, The Tornado Ashes Club.
So in actuality, this was an example of imitation surpassing the original. This steaming pile of fluff prose dogshit was in fact groin-grabbingly brilliant satire by Steve Hely that was better and more true than anything you’ll read by Cormac McCarthy and his ilk.
When the story begins, Pete’s working for a sketchy “admissions consulting” company where he mainly punches up college application essays from rich American kids. When, for instance, they’ve written an essay on Anchorman, he changes Will Ferrell to Toni Morrison and otherwise gussies it up. He has a talent for this which he developed in college where as an English major he cracked the code on the kind of bullshit his professors wanted to hear and could bang out papers like “Moby-Dick: A Vivisection of Capitalism” to earn a quick A.
Upon receiving a painful invitation to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding—to an Australian—he dreams of becoming a famous author in part to show her up and steal her thunder.
From there, we follow Pete as he cracks the code on writing a popular literary novel based on all the charlatan writers he’s seen. And it’s here where Hely’s talent really shines through. He has a keen eye to not only spot bullshit, but to inform us exactly why it’s bullshit, and as mentioned, to write bullshit that’s even better than the original bullshit.
This is on display when Pete sees a piece by TV journalist Tinsley Honig on Preston Brooks, a successful author awash in college coeds who will become Pete’s main source of imitation.
The TV cut to Preston Brooks leading Tinsley into an airy, book-lined office with bay windows facing a still lake.
“I call this the dance hall,” he said. “Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while.”
Tinsley nodded sagely as though this were the wisest, truest thing anyone had ever said.
As you may expect, there are many little and big LOLs to be had—including a couple that had me doing imagined air fives with Hely—in this wonderful journey that lampoons an array of genres as Hely pulls back the curtain on all the very bad men and women perpetrating their atrocities.
Having said that, it wasn’t all fun and games and literary kicks to the groins of con-men. There were a few disconcerting aspects.
First of all, Hely praises Herman Melville and Moby Dick. I read Moby Dick as an “adult” and if memory serves, the first 15 pages are 15-line sentences about the type of wood used in ships in the 1800’s. No fuckin’ thank you, Herman.
Secondly, there’s the following passage from a diatribe against book reviewers:
If a guy drove around your neighborhood with a bullhorn pointing out which people were too fat, he would be advancing wellness, and calling fitness to our attention, and keeping public health alive. But you would hate him. You would throw rocks at him, as well you should.
I would not throw rocks at that guy. I would shower him with praise for his commendable service for mankind. “Way to reach out to the community to help make as all healthier, bro! The work you’re doing to reduce medical costs and eyesores is first rate!!!”
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Hely softens up at the end, suggesting that perhaps there are some honest, beautiful, heartwarming works out there; that maybe Pete’s a little too cynical.
No fucking way, Hely! Pete was dead-on the whole time. The reason we like him so much is because he keeps it real. Well, with us anyway. Sure, he lies to everyone else but only because he wants money and to feel like he’s better than other people. Who can’t relate to that?!
Nevertheless, How I Became a Famous Novelist manages to overcome all three of these defects thanks to Hely’s creativity, sense of humor, and sagacity for a well-earned 5 Pearls.
Bonus quote: Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.