By Robert Downes 7/27/09
How I Became a Famous Novelist
By Steve Hely
Black Cat Books
322 pages - $14
When my career as a novelist began, my ambitions were simple: to learn
the con, make money, impress women, and get out.
So says Pete Tarslow, a cynical young author who tells the rags-to-riches
tale of writing his first novel, The Tornado Ashes Club in what is surely
the funniest book written so far this century.
Hilarious is too slight a word to describe this comic novel by Steve
Hely, especially if you happen to be a book club fan or a writer yourself.
Helys satire of bestselling books, authors and publishing had me
laughing out loud for page after page. Its the kind of book you have to
be careful of while drinking liquids so they dont go spurting out your
nose... And in between the laughs, How I Became a Famous Novelist is
punctuated by dead-ringer insights on literature and the book business.
Fresh out of college, Tarslow works for a company called EssayAides that
specializes in rewriting the gibberish words of wealthy kids into
polished application essays for college or grad school.
When he learns that his former girlfriend Polly is getting married,
Tarslow decides that the best revenge would be to become a bestselling
author in order to wreck her wedding by dazzling her guests and one-upping
the groom. In his imagination, Tarslow plans to snag the cutest bridesmaid
at the wedding, say writerly things to adoring women, drop tidbits about
his six-figure movie deal and mention the Entertainment Weekly profile of
Elijah Wood who will be starring in the film version of his book. And
Polly would slap her flowers in rage, upstaged at her own wedding.
Tarslow also imagines that becoming a famous novelist will land him
riches, a stately waterfront home, and a university teaching job with an
endless supply of bright young co-eds eager to have sex with a great
His quest to become a bestselling novelist is merciless in harpooning the
sacred cows of literature, poking fun at thinly-disguised famous authors,
writers workshops, book expos, Oprah, and the New York Times Bestsellers
Half the fun of reading the book is trying to figure out who the authors
are that are being satirized: Dan Brown, John Grisham, James Patterson,
Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Patricia Cornwell, Cormac McCarthy and Charles
Frazier are among the possible suspects.
For his role model as a novelist, Tarslow is inspired by the work of a
windbag author named Preston Brooks, whose book, Kindness to Birds is
packed with billowy, sentimental prose in the mode of Nicholas Sparks (The
Notebook, Message in a Bottle) or James Waller (The Bridges of Madison
Tarslow considers Brooks to be a con man and a phony who has strung
together some mushy novels and pawned them off on thousands of book-buying
saps. He resolves to write his own book, The Tornado Ashes Club, using
all of the cliches of popular fiction and book club bait: Write a
popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book, is one of his
rules for success.
RULES FOR SUCCESS
His research turns up 16 rules for writing a bestselling novel: First, it
must include a murder (60 percent of all bestselling novels involve
killings). Then the book should include clubs; secrets; descriptions of
delicious meals; something about World War II; highway scenes; obscure,
exotic locations; plant names; a hero liberated from a dull job: and the
injection of as many scenes from reader-filled towns as possible, ie.
bars, restaurants and hangouts.
From this mish-mash of book club staples, Tarslow concocts a wildly
unlikely tale of a man accused of shooting his boss in Las Vegas, who goes
on the lam with his Grandmother on a mission to toss the ashes of her dead
lover (a World War II commando who traveled the exotic countries of the
world) into the funnel of a tornado. Naturally, its a hit.
To qualify his book as literary fiction, Tarslow realizes that the only
thing he needs is to evoke confusing sadness at the end of the book and
make sure his prose is defined as being lyrical on the back cover (or
resembling bad poetry, as he puts it).
In short, youll never read the likes of Jim Harrison again without a
laugh and a twinge of recognition after reading Helys scorched-earth
satire. Even Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville and F. Scott
Fitzgerald are pictured in a new light as authors who pandered to the
popular tastes of their times.
But its also true that the know-it-all Tarslow proves to be too smart for
his own good. His presumptions about books and phony authors lead to
apocalyptic results at Pollys wedding as well as a fiery confrontation
before a live audience with the crusty old con man Preston Brooks.
Author Steve Hely was a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and
with the animated comedy American Dad. His book is in the same league as
Christopher Buckleys Thank You for Smoking and the best satires of the
00s. Ultimately, How I Became a Famous Novelist lands on a dime as
Helys young writer-antihero comes to a revelation about not only whats
wrong with bestselling fiction, but also whats right about the written
word and why novels matter.