Adam Langer’s “The Thieves of Manhattan” is a knowing love letter to literature both high- and lowbrow. Libraries and bookstores are torched, agents and editors are depicted as ignorant cynics, yet the thrill of storytelling endures.
The book’s unlikely hero is Ian Minot, a barista-slash-writer who arrives in New York from Indiana dreaming of the literary life. Endless rejection slips leave him bitterly disenchanted.
Enter Jed Roth, a big-tipping customer at Morningside Coffee who has cooked up an intricate plan to expose all that is rotten in the state of publishing -- specifically, the phenomenal success of a gangster memoir that Ian and Jed both believe to be fake.
Years earlier, Jed had a novel rejected by an agent who said it would never find a publisher unless “every word of it was true.” He talks Ian into making small changes and resubmitting the manuscript as his own, with one key difference: Ian will claim that it’s a memoir. Once it has been published to inevitable acclaim, he will own up to the hoax and bring down his editor and agent.
Jed turns out to be far craftier than Ian imagines, however. The faux memoir describes an arson attack on a private library, a forged copy of its most valuable manuscript and an elusive femme fatale. When Ian finds himself pursued by a murderous rare-book dealer and a thuggish librarian whose weapon of choice is Shakespeare’s complete works, he realizes the story is true after all. And in allowing his name to appear on its spine, he has framed himself as the forger.
Along the way, everyone who’s anyone in the literary world is incorporated into Langer’s invented slang. Authors become nouns and verbs in a world of “capotes” (broad-brimmed hats like Truman’s) and drunks “palahniuking” over someone’s couch.
Granted, that tic becomes a little wearing, yet this isn’t just a novel for literary insiders. Nor, despite its blistering cynicism, is it a book without heart. While Langer depicts an industry in which super-agents judge an author’s talent by his “franzens” (eyeglasses) and editors rarely read more than a book’s first few pages, even at his most caustic, he remains focused on spinning a properly engrossing tale.
Never mind the readings in hipster haunts, the cocktail parties in palatial apartments and the trendy eyewear -- it’s the stories that count, he reminds us.
“The Thieves of Manhattan” is published by Spiegel & Grau (259 pages, $15 paperback). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)