Have you ever wondered what happened with writers like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, and others like them who made a huge splash in the literary world, and then…just disappeared? At least in the sense of writing more books. Mr. Salinger—according to one rumor—is supposed to have continued writing while in seclusion, putting his manuscripts in safe deposit boxes. And Harper Lee? Well, according to some, Truman Capote—another one-hit wonder of sorts—actually wrote most of To Kill A Mockingbird and she was never able to follow up on it.
Well, I can’t tell you what happened to these and other writers who did this, but you can find one version of what might have happened in The Salinger Contractby Adam Langer.
Mr. Langer breaks the fourth wall in many ways. First of all, he’s both the author and narrator of this book, though the Adam Langer in the story is a fictional version. The fictional version is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, whose wife, Sabine, is a professor. Adam is also friends with Conner Joyce, a crime fiction writer whose book sales have been falling off lately.
Adam and Conner met when Adam lived in New York—Manhattan, of course—and ran a magazine called Lit in which he interviewed authors. They appreciated him because he quoted them verbatim in his profiles, and accompanied these profiles with flattering pictures. He states that no one thought Maurice Sendak and Stephen King were handsome until he ran profiles on them.
Conner is on a book tour, pushing his latest at the Bloomington Borders, and he has fonder memories of Adam than Adam does of him. It’s not that Adam has bad memories of Conner—it’s just that Conner apparently considers them to be better friends than Adam does. The upshot of this is that, after a reading at the Borders, Conner starts telling him a story of meeting a man named Dex Dunford in Chicago after another disastrous reading at another Borders. It’s disastrous because, just across the street at Barnes & Noble, Margot Hetley, author of the Vampire Wizards Chronicles, is having a reading. Margot is hugely successful with her almost brainless stories—bringing to mind another popular author—of vampires and wizards battling one another and also having long sex scenes that produce hybrids known as vampards.
Dex Dunford has a proposal for Conner: write a novel just for him, preferably another crime novel, and in return, Dex will pay Conner $2.5 million. The stipulation is that he must write the novel either in longhand or on a typewriter, and the copy Dex pays for will be the only one in existence.
At first, Conner isn’t sure what to write. He even tries writing stuff that’s not normal for him, but doesn’t get anywhere until he visits his publisher Sascha who has just had a visit from Margot Hetley, who has brought her the latest installment of the Vampire Wizards Chronicles on a jewel-encrusted, monogrammed flash drive. That’s when he gets the inspiration to write a heist novel in which the flash drive is stolen.
Conner is known for the meticulous detail in his novels, detail he makes sure is authentic through exhaustive research. He puts this detail in the book for Dex, only to find out later that the flash drive really was stolen. And, of course, Dex is the one who stole it.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot. I think that’s enough spoilers for this review, and quite a few more than I usually reveal. Suffice it to say things only get more complicated from there, if you can imagine that, so if what I’ve told you sounds interesting, find The Salinger Contract and give it a read.
It’s not a perfect book by any means. There’s a lot of infodump in the beginning. It’s necessary information, I’m just not sure if it was presented the best way it could have been. But, being as this is a more literary novel than most of my fare, I guess it’s allowable. I would like to add that he makes fun of those who inhabit the literary world of books with lots of emotion but very little plot going for them, even characterizing many of the literature professors at the university as people who talk about books they’ve never actually read.
A fairly astute characterization, if you ask me.
On the whole, though, this is a good book, and it does a good job of portraying the world we authors find ourselves in with the looming failure of the Big Publishing Houses and the switch to ebooks and the surge of independent publishers. It’s a tumultuous time in publishing, and Mr. Langer brings that to the fore. For me, it’s a bit like riding a monster wave, trying to stay on top as you’re heading for the beach.
Mr. Langer also puts enough twists and turns in his plot to keep you guessing, including one that recurred a lot that I especially liked in which Adam thinks he’s going to be the one who rescues the plot line of this real-life conspiracy only to be continually disappointed…and yet, in the end, he gets a job that lets him be the hero.
So if you want to read a book of writers writing about writing, go pick up a copy of The Salinger Contract. If nothing else, it’s a satirical, tongue in cheek look at the state of publishing today, and he uses an interesting story to illustrate all this.